Elderberry: The People's Medicine Chest

Those dark purple jewels are elderberries (sambucus nigra) that I recently foraged along with a bevy of blackberries.

I often get emails from folks asking how I find all these wild edibles I've written about. The truth is, they find me. I haven't set out intentionally to forage for anything in quite some time. I've also led a rather unconventional (yet charmed) life. Because of my many years spent living and studying with indigenous elders on several continents, I'm well skilled at identifying plants in their native habitats and know about their medicinal uses.

A quick search of "wild edibles" on Amazon brings up a cache of books. Browse through them and add a couple to your home library if foraging is something that interests you. Trusted authors that I'd recommend include Steven Foster, Tom Brown, "Wildman" Steve Brill, and Stephen Buhner.

So I'm anxious to tell you about the beautiful sambucus nigra, but before I go any further, this would be a good time to put out a disclaimer. *waves to the nice folks at the FDA*

As with everything on this website, this article is for educational and entertainment purposes only. I am not a licensed medical professional. I don't even play a doctor on TV. This article is not intended to be used as medical advice. Herbs are powerful medicine and can be harmful if taken without knowing the contraindications or adverse effects they may have when mixed with prescription drugs or used in excessive amounts.

Alrighty then. Let's talk elderberry.

Did you know that the most powerful wand in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is made of sambucus wood and is known as the Elder Wand? Fun fact.

The elderberry tree has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and is often known as the "people's medicine chest" because of its many uses. The bark, stems, and leaves have been traditionally used as healing poultices. Ingesting any of these parts in sufficient quantity can cause a toxic build up of cyanide in the body, so please don't do that, okay?

The berries, rich in flavonoid antioxidants, potassium, and Vitamin C, strengthen the immune system. They're very effective in treating autoimmune disorders or severe immune depletion after long-term antibiotic use.

Because they're filled with anthocyanins that have an anti-inflammatory effect, easing aches, pain and fever, elderberries are often administered to lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of a cold, cough, and flu. They're also great for hormonally-induced nausea (hello, morning sickness) when combined with ginger.

When foraging for elderberries, you want to avoid picking the red ones. Look for nice ripe dark berries. The elderberry is highly astringent and could potentially make you sick if you eat a bunch of them raw. Cooking not only neutralizes them, but it also enhances the unique flavor of the berry.

So, what pray tell, did I do with all those wild elderberries that found me? I made a syrup that I can keep on hand to ward off any nasty bugs that may come calling during cold and flu season. Bonus: it's also yummy drizzled over pancakes or ice cream. *wink*

Elderberry Syrup
2 C fresh elderberries or 1 C dried 
3 C filtered water
1 C local raw honey

Removing the berries from their clusters can be a tedious process. Trust me. Here's a tip I garnered from an old Anishinaabe medicine man: place the clusters in a ziplock bag and store in the freezer. Once frozen, just shake the bag and most of the berries will fall off the little stems. You can keep any extra elderberries in the freezer to make additional batches of the syrup as you need it.

1. Combine the berries and water in a stainless steel stockpot. Simmer for 30 minutes or until the concoction is reduced by about half.

2. Mash the berries and then strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer.

3. Return the juice to heat and add any additional herbs and spices you'd like – try ginger, cloves, and/or cinnamon. Simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off heat.

4. Strain again and return to pot. Add honey and stir well until it melts. Besides contributing its own medicinal qualities, the honey acts as a preservative here. If you choose to use agave nectar or another sweetener instead, you'll need to add alcohol as a preservative: either 3-4 ounces of brandy or 100 proof vodka. Weeeeeee!

5. When the syrup has cooled, put it into bottles (or jars, but bottles will make for easier pouring). Label, date and store in the refrigerator.

Tell me, have you ever foraged for wild edibles or made your own medicine?

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