Hypocrites, the father of medicine, referred to the elderberry bush as his “medicine chest.”
With the changing light in the sky, you can feel the dog days of summer are coming to an end. Fall brings with it the cooler nights, cozy sweaters, and the excitement of returning to school. What it also seems to usher in is the cold and flu season. This year in particular, we are going to need all the help we can get to boost our immune systems. One of the best backyard medicines we have for this purpose is growing along the roadsides and on the edges of meadows.
Sambucus nigra (European Elder) or Elderberry canadensis (American Elder) is a woody, herbaceous multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that can grow up to 30 feet tall. It typically grows on the edge of treelines, stream banks and roadsides, preferring part-shade to full sun. Elderberry grows best in rich, moist, but well-drained soil. Hardy down to zone 3, many other varieties of elderberry are common all through the northeast and into Canada as well as Europe and Asia.
It is believed to have been deposited by retreating glaciers as far back as 9,000 BC. Elderberry seeds found in a Neolithic pole-dwelling in Switzerland suggests that the plant was in cultivation by 2,000 BC. The bark is light grey to dark brown, depending on the variety, and the oddly pinnate compound leaves are dark green to purple and have an unpleasant smell. The inflorescence of white flowers is flat topped and has a sweet, floral scent and flavor. Fruits are berry-like, and are dark purple to black when ripe. The name “Elder” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word “ellen” meaning fire-kindler. The stems of the shrub can be turned into hollow tubes through which air was blown to fan a fire.
Ethnobotanical uses of elderberries include: edible berries and flowers for food and medicine, dyes for basketry and fiber, arrow shafts, flutes and whistles, clapper sticks, combs, pegs, and blowguns. The berries are high in Vitamin A, C, and B6, but MUST be cooked before consuming. The entire plant contains hydrocyanic acid and sambucine, which cause severe nausea in some. The flowers are the mildest part of the plant and contain cancer fighting flavonoids and can be steeped in hot water to make medicinal tea to be consumed or applied to the skin.
The list of ailments both the blossoms and the berries treat is extensive. The tannins in the flowers reduce bleeding, diarrhea, and congestion. It can also be used externally to tone and soften skin lighten freckles and treat bruises and sores on domestic animals. The tea is a treatment for indigestion, rheumatism and bladder and kidney infections. Combined with the prepared berries, the anthocyanins in the berries treat inflammation of joints, influenza, support the cardiovascular system, reduce fever, and act as a diuretic. The berry juice can be made into salve to treat burns, bee stings, and joint stiffness.
Raw elderberries are 80% water, 18% carbohydrates, and the remaining 2% is protein and fat. When harvesting, only choose the berries which are the darkest purple to black. The small berries are loaded with seeds, and the juice is dark purple turning to red when mixed with water. Elderberries have a sweet and tart flavor and are ideal for wine, jelly, syrups, and delicious in pies or pastries. The flowers of Sambucus nigra are used to produce elderflower cordial. The French liquor, St-Germain is made from elderflowers. It has a complex floral-citrus flavor that is added to cocktails or prosecco.
6-8 bunches of clean, elderflowers (after cutting from the bush, gently tap upside down to knock off any insects that can be hanging on).
2 cups flour (your choice—can be a gluten-free option)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 beaten eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup milk (cow, nut, or grain)
3-4 tbsp canola, soy, or vegetable oil
Mix all the batter ingredients in a wide bowl until smooth. Heat up oil in a large frying pan. Dip flowers into the batter and then lightly fry until golden brown. You can also snip the flowers off the stems and sprinkle into the batter and fry in lacy spoonfuls. Scoop out and place on a paper towel to absorb the extra oil. Sprinkle with powdered sugar—yum!
*This recipe calls for one pound of fresh elderberries. Because the stems can cause a stomach ache, it can be a lot of work removing each berry, so I freeze my bunches first. The frozen berries easily pop off the stems saving the labor.
1 lb elderberries
2, 2-inch strips of lemon zest
1/4 of a vanilla bean, split
1 cup sugar (you can substitute maple syrup)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
In a glass bowl (do not use plastic or metal) mix in elderberries, lemon zest, and vanilla bean. Cover with the sugar and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside 12 hours or overnight. The next day, pour the contents of the bowl into a sauce pan, add lemon juice, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes on low. Stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and pour into a mason jar. Delicious over ice cream, yogurt, spread on crusty bread, or served with salty cheese.
4 cups water
1 cup dried organic elderberries (or 1 1/2 cups fresh frozen)
2 tbsp grated, fresh ginger
1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/2 tsp ground cloves (optional)
1 cup raw honey
Pour water into a sauce pan and add elderberries and spices. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low. Cover and let simmer for 45 minutes until liquid is reduced by half. Remove from heat and let cool. Mash the berries carefully and then pour through a strainer into a glass bowl or mason jar. Once completely cooled to room temperature, stir in the honey. Refrigerate.
Take 1-2 Tbsp daily as an immune booster, especially during cold and flu season.