Elderberry Syrup

Sambucus nigra fructus

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As much as calendula and St. John’s wort oils are a part of Summer, so elderberry and rosehip syrups are a part of Fall. It is a time to harvest berries and roots. Roots are full of nourishment at this time as they store nutrients to support the plant through the winter months. The berries of the rose bushes and the Elder tree are full of immune-enhancing compounds.

 Later this month we will talk about rosehips, but today we’ll focus on Elder. The elder tree, Sambucus nigra, has a long tradition of use in herbal medicine. In the late Spring the flowers make a unique and refreshing drink, that once tasted will never be forgotten. Beyond their pleasant taste, elderflowers are used at the first signs of a cold, as they are diaphoretic, that is, they help the body to sweat.

 Where the flowers are delicate and lace-like, with a white and pale yellow colouring, the berries are a dramatic dark purple, clusters of small berries on red stalks. They are quite striking.

 Unfortunately, the Elder is a rare sight in eastern Ontario and is usually only found cultivated in gardens. Just a little further south and all over Europe, Elder trees are common, growing like weeds. The North American species is Sambucus canadensis and it appears to have the same medicinal qualities as European Elder.

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Harry Potter fans will know that Dumbledore owned an Elder wand that had powerful qualities. The Elder was a sacred tree in Celtic and Druid tradition and given that JK Rowling was living in Edinburgh during the time she was writing her Harry Potter series, it is not surprising that she may have drawn on this ancient knowledge.

 Indeed, the Elder was endowed with all sorts of magical and fantastical qualities and steeped in folklore perhaps more so than any other herb.  Mrs. Grieves says that in Britain the elder was said to ward off evil influence and give protection from witches, the Russians believed it would drive away evil spirits and the Bohemians go to it with a spell to drive away evil spirits. The Sicilians think that sticks of its wood will kill serpents and drive away robbers, while the Serbs introduce a stick of elder into their wedding ceremonies to bring good luck. The tree was formerly cultivated near cottages in England for protection against witches.

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 The branches and twigs of Elder are easily hollowed out to create a tube. This has provided the basis for musical pipes, for blowing life into a fire and as pop-guns for young children. So popular was the latter use that Culpepper said of the Elder, “It is needless to write any description of this (Elder), since every young [child] that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the Elder. Children who today spend time in Forest or Nature schools will be familiar with the Elder as musical pipes and as a whistle.”

 Fast-forward 70-80 years from the first publication of Mrs. Grieve’s Herbal and we find some scientific evidence to support the traditional medicinal use of elderberries.

 Elderberries, being purple, are full of bioactive compounds, which are plant chemicals that provide the body with antioxidant and immune enhancing properties. In the case of elderberries we have proanthocyanidins, flavonoids, catechins, phenolic acid and vitamin C. Elderberries are the richest known plant source of anthocyanins, significantly higher than that found in blueberries.

 Several non-human studies have shown that the elderberry has potent antiviral activity and human studies have shown that people with flu who were given elderberry had almost half as many sick days as those given a placebo (a pretend treatment).

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Elderberry Syrup

Great for colds, coughs and flu

 Elderberry syrup is delicious. As fresh berries are unavailable in Ottawa, I use the dried berries from my apothecary. If you are fortunate enough to have access to the fresh berries I will include the amounts for both. I am pleasantly surprised at the similarity in flavor between the fresh and dried.

 I’ve added two recipes below, one that can be made with sugar and the other with honey. I prefer to avoid sugar as it competes with vitamin C for absorption in the gut. That being said, boiling and simmering the elderberries for the length of time needed to prepare the syrup will likely destroy much of the vitamin C. For those with irritable bowel syndrome who have to avoid fructose, sugar is a better option over the honey.

 Honey version:

¾ cup (75g) dried elderberries or 1½ cups fresh elderberries

3 ¼ cups water

1 tbsp. cinnamon granules or 1 x 4 inch stick cinnamon

4  cloves

3 inch fresh ginger – grated

1 ¼ cups honey

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 Instructions

  • Put all ingredients except honey into a pot and bring to a boil.

  • Turn down the heat and simmer gently for about 30 minutes

  • Remove the pan from the heat and strain the contents through a sieve or muslin cloth to remove the solids  - these can be composted.

  • Add the honey to the liquid while still hot and mix the two.

  • Decant into a sterile Mason jar and seal.

  • It can be kept in the refrigerator for up 4 weeks.

Sugar version: 

This version is an Elderberry ‘Rob’ (a vegetable juice thickened by heat), a more traditional preparation going back to the 17th century and still included in some pharmacopoeias today. During the four years that we spent as herbal students in the south of England, this version was a Fall staple in our refrigerators.

According to Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, to make elderberry rob, 5lb of fresh ripe, crushed berries are simmered with 1lb of sugar and the juice evaporated to the thickness of honey. You can add cloves, cinnamon and ginger as preferred, for their warming properties while it is simmering. Strain the contents through a sieve or muslin cloth to remove the solids. Decant into a Mason jar. The syrup should keep in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.

How to enjoy it:

The warming, stimulating spices add to the therapeutic effect. At the first sign of a cold or sore throat, you can add about 2 tablespoons of the syrup to boiling water or to a tea made with elderflower, yarrow and peppermint. Or it can just be taken for pleasure on a damp day when you need a warming spicy drink to take the chill off. It is especially effective taken before bed as it promotes perspiration.

Note: Honey should not be given to children under the age of one year due to the risk of botulism.


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A qualified Medical Herbalist is always your best resource for information related to herbal medicines.

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