Elder is one of the most beautiful and versatile of medicinal plants—and it is probably surrounded by more folklore, fairy-lore, and superstition than any other plant. This is probably because its countless medicinal uses would have made the plant revered for millennia, along with its value as a food plant with edible berries, flowers, and young shoots.
There is evidence that the elder was cultivated in Stone Age villages in Switzerland and Italy, and it’s easy to see how easily it could have come into cultivation. Our Stone Age ancestors were probably delighted when new plants sprouted in the spot where leftover berries or pulp from making juice or other elderberry products were thrown out, bringing the plants closer to home.
The name “elder” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “aeld,” meaning “fire.” Because the soft pith of the young branches pushes out easily, the plant could be used to make hollow tubes for whistles and Pan-pipes, pop-guns, and for blowing up fires.
The medicinal uses of various parts of the plant are almost innumerable. John Evelyn wrote, “If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countrymen could ail for which thy might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds.” Pliny, Hippocrates, and Dioscorides wrote of the healing powers of elder in ancient times, and it was included in the oldest of British pharmacopeias.
In modern times, scientific studies have validated the usefulness of elderberries as one of the finest remedies for preventing and treating upper respiratory infections and fever, as well as for treating nasal congestion and sore throat. It is reported that a mixture containing elderberry extract could inhibit the replication of 11 strains of the influenza virus and increase the production of cytokines, which enable immune cells to communicate with each other.
Elderberries also stimulate the immune system, and they are packed with antioxidant flavonoids. In one measure of the antioxidant capacity of several small fruits, elderberries were the highest, far higher than even cranberry and blueberry.
Elderberry juice—or other preparations, such as syrups and “robs”—are among the finest remedies to keep on hand for winter colds and flu, and has been used for that purpose for millennia.
Nowadays, you can find elderberry juice concentrate on the shelves of every health-food store, because it is such a favorite for treating colds and flu.
But elderberries grow everywhere along roadsides and at the edges of fields. Once you’ve learned to recognize the plant, you’ll be struck by the abundance of the free harvest. In my rural area, there are so many wild elderberries that the amount I can collect is limited only by how much I have time to process into juice, syrup, rob, jam, or wine.
HOW TO COLLECT WILD ELDERBERRIES
Elderberries are ripe in late summer and early fall. In many elderberry patches, the fruit will be gone by the end of September—either fallen to the ground or eaten by birds. But for reasons that are a mystery to me, some elderberry patches continue to hold their huge clusters of ripe fruit much farther into cool weather. In fact, the patches that are fruiting well into the fall seem to be the plants with the largest clusters of the biggest berries.
My guess: I think the very fine and very late berries are produced by plants that were cut down the previous year, by the highway department or the farmer. People who cultivate elderberries tell me that the finest crops are obtained by cutting the woody stems to the ground any time after they go dormant.
The easiest way to find roadside elderberry plants is to keep an eye out for them in June, when the plants are in full bloom and covered with huge white clusters of tiny flowers. It’s worthwhile to gather some flower clusters at that time for making elderflower “champagne” or elderflower water for cosmetic use, or even for use in cooking.
Make a mental note of the location of elderberry patches. While you can probably find ripe clusters of berries along the roadsides later in the season, they are a lot easier to spot if you have a general idea where to look.
It will not be a problem to avoid plants that have been recently sprayed with herbicides; they will be dead. However, it might be wise to avoid plants under power lines, since the electric company periodically sprays plants in these areas to control the overgrowth of vegetation.
The simplest way to gather the berries is to break off the large (sometimes dinner-plate-size) clusters and put them in a paper grocery bag for later processing. In a really choice elderberry patch, you can fill a grocery bag in minutes—and, if you are as slow about it as me, that is probably the maximum amount you can reasonably process at one time.
You can remove the berries from the stems at home. I am told that this is more easily accomplished if the clusters are frozen first, but it isn’t too much trouble to do this immediately. The berries can also be frozen in big gallon-size freezer bags, after they have been removed from the stems. You can make them into juice, wine, or other products whenever you have time.
Elderberries can be eaten raw, and the fully ripe black berries are not toxic, but it’s best not to eat the raw berries in large amounts, as they upset some people’s digestion. Most people don’t enjoy the taste of the raw berries, since—even though their vitamin and antioxidant content is higher than other small fruits—they are lacking in both the sugars and the acids that make fruits flavorful. Their delicious flavor can only be brought out by the addition of sweetening and an acid (such as lemon juice), and by cooking or drying. Plain elderberries, cooked or raw, have a decidedly lackluster flavor.
On the other hand, elderberry juice is a delicious hot winter beverage, mixed with honey and lemon juice. Iced elderberry juice is the favorite summer beverage of one of my friends, a farm woman who grows hundreds of elderberry bushes. She dilutes the juice by half and adds honey and lemon juice.
Drinking elderberry juice regularly has many health benefits, because of its high content of vitamins and antioxidants, and because it strengthens the immune system, but it is especially beneficial for winter colds and flu.
HOW TO MAKE ELDERBERRY JUICE
Put the cleaned berries in a saucepan and add enough water just to cover.
Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let the berries stand for a couple of hours or as long as overnight. Strain off the juice and refrigerate. Discard the berries.
To can elderberry juice, add 4 tablespoons of lemon juice per pint, or 8 tablespoons per quart. Process in the boiling water bath for 20 minutes in canning jars with ring bands.
For colds and flu, warm the full-strength juice in a saucepan and add lemon juice and honey. Drink a cup or so two or three times a day.
For summer beverage that supports the immune system and is a prophylactic against illness, it can be drunk diluted—as much as three parts water to one part juice—with lemon juice and honey.
HOW TO MAKE ELDERBERRY ROB OR SYRUP
A “rob” is a juice thickened by heat, intended to be diluted with hot water for winter use. Elderberry rob is made by cooking down the berries and sweetener until thick.
Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, gives a recipe that is simplicity itself:
“To make Elderberry Rob, 5 lb. of fresh, ripe, crushed berries are simmered with 1 lb. of loaf sugar and the juice evaporated to the thickness of honey.”
Since this recipe will be a jam of honey-like consistency (that is, full of fruit pulp and seeds), some modern recipes suggest straining before bottling. If strained, it might be more accurate to call this a “syrup.”
If you wish, 4 tablespoons of lemon juice per pint, or 8 tablespoons per quart can be added before canning.
To can, pour into canning jars with ring bands and process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.
For winter colds and flu, Grieve says one or two tablespoons mixed with a tumblerful of hot water should be taken. The addition of lemon juice will enhance the flavor of this drink. Some may enjoy a jigger of whiskey thrown in to make a “hot toddy.” That’s up to you.
MAUDE GRIEVE’S ELDERBERRY SYRUP RECIPE
It is one of Grieve peculiarities that most of her recipes seem designed to medicine an army—or at least a very large family.
” ‘Syrup of Elderberries’ is made as follows: Pick the berries when thoroughly ripe from the stalks and stew with a little water in a jar in the oven or pan. After straining, allow ½ oz. of whole ginger and 18 cloves to each gallon. Boil the ingredients an hour, strain again and bottle. The syrup is an excellent cure for a cold. To about a wineglassful of Elderberry syrup, add hot water, and if liked, sugar.”
This preparation should be canned by processing in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.
In Grieve’s day, people did not take a great deal of care with highly sweetened products like jams, jellies, and syrups. Often it was considered more than sufficient to pour the product into sterilized jars with sterilized lids. My mother preserved jams and jellies by pouring about a half-inch layer of melted paraffin over the product, which she then kept refrigerated in the spare refrigerator on the back porch. In the old days, winter “refrigeration” was accomplished by storing in a basement or root cellar.
Still, the brief extra step of processing in a boiling water bath ensures that all the work you invested will not go to waste.
Any of these products may be used to treat winter colds and flu. All are wonderfully beneficial, often working a speedy improvement.
Elderberry drinks also have a reputation for curing rheumatic pains, sciatica, and other forms of neuralgia. This was discovered when an American sailor informed a physician in Prague that “getting drunk on genuine, old, dark-red port was a sure remedy for rheumatic pains.” After long series of investigations, it was discovered that real port has practically no anti-neuralgic properties. But it was commonplace at that time for elderberry juice to be added to cheap wines, to create “fake” tawny port, and it was found that the fake product containing elderberry juice was very efficacious for curing such pains. Doctors of that era recommended a dose of 30 grams (about 2 tablespoons) of elderberry juice mixed with 10 grams (about 2 teaspoons) of port wine, but we already know that the port wine is not the active ingredient.
Grieve does not mention how often this dose was to be taken, but if you skip the port wine portion, there is no reason to skimp on the dose—unless you’re low on elderberry juice. Make lots, and you can drink a cup, flavored with lemon and honey, two or three times a day, if you want!
- Gooseberry Jam with Elderflowers
Elderflowers added to gooseberry jam impart a delicate “muscat” flavor, and give the jam a beautiful “calico” look, that makes these jams excellent for giving as gifts.
- Gathering and Using Elderflowers to Make Lotions for Beautiful Skin and Healing Salves
Elderflowers blooming in the fields and along the roadsides in June are a beauty--and healing--bonanza!
MysticMoonlight on July 17, 2013:
I collect and use Elder flowers and the berries as well. I'm fortunate that they grow right here on my property and are readily available, when I can keep the deer at bay that is. They love the berries as much as I love using them I think! :) Great article, voted!