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Support the changing season with elderberry

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

I cannot believe I have been away from posting new stories the WHOLE SUMMER! But alas, I'm back, and at such a wonderful time of year.


The season is changing into Fall. The leaves are turning gorgeous colors and the summer harvest is giving its last oomph before it's time for the soil to rest.


Over the last week, I've been busy collecting fennel seeds, which I use in my tummy healing tea blend. We've been processing our cured garlic, so it will last even longer as dried slices. I'm thinking of creating a new culinary blend with our garlic, to complement the Salt of the Earth Mineral Rich Salt Blend. I'm tossing around some ideas and will let ya'll know if I land on something.


But I digress. The star of the past few weeks have really been Elderberry.

A close-up image of ripe elderberries on an elder tree
Elderberries ready to be harvested

It started in late August, when I had the opportunity to harvest some deliciously ripe elderberries from a gloriously radiant 12 foot tree.


Three of us spent an hour collecting the berry bundles and easily ended up with more than 10 pounds. The elder tree was happy to have us remove a little weight off her shoulders.


From there, we processed the berries by removing them from their stems and both freezing some and drying some in preparation for a hands-on community herbal class I taught in September.


Harvesting Elderberries


Elderberries are typically available to harvest at the end of Summer and early Fall. There are a couple species of elderberries and I look for to harvest, which grow black or blue berries (Sambuccus Nigra spp canadensis and caerulea, respectively).


Where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, we also find elders that produce red berries (Sambucus racemosa). We do not typically harvest these berries since they have been found to have a toxic component that is poisonous and may cause nausea (more on this a little later). I have not done the chemistry studies myself, and have found people that have used the red berries without issue, but I still prefer not to use them in my medicine, just to be safe. I do, however, feel completely safe using the flowers of the red elder in the Spring. The flowers have strong medicine in them, too. I'll likely write another post about the flowers in the Spring when they are in bloom.


Elderberries grow in large, flowing bunches. When I harvest the berries, I snip the whole bundle off the tree in one piece and set it in my box. I make sure to remove the berries from the twigs within a day so that they are at the peak of freshness and don't start shriveling or molding.


Preparing Elderberries


When you are are processing elderberries for medicine, whether you're going to use them as fresh berries or get them ready to be dehydrated, you want to be sure to remove all the the stems from the berries. It's only the little round morsels that have the medicine.

A tray of elderberries, removed from their stems, ready for the deydrator.
This tray is ready for the dehydrator

Then, dehydrate the berries, freeze them, or use them fresh. If you use them fresh (or if you use the frozen berries later), make sure that you cook them or heat them up, like when making a decoction. This is due to the presence of the pesky toxin that I'll explain a bit more about, here:


~A little caution~

As with the red elder, the stems and leaves also contain high amounts of the same toxin (cyanogenic glycosides, to be more specific), so you'll want to remove as many stems as you can. The seeds of the berries also contain this toxin, though in much lower amount in the black and blue berries. When you heat the berries, like in cooking, decocting, or dehydrating, it breaks down this component and the toxin is lost in the process. I've read from a number of sources that berries should be cooked or dehydrated at a minimum of 125 degrees to ensure the component breaks down.


Medicine Making

An empty branch after elderberries have been removed
Look at these amazing branches!

Finally, what do you want to do with your elderberries?!


Elderberries are great as a syrup, oxymel, in tea, or as a tincture. They are high in Vitamin C and anti-oxidants and have been proven throughout history to help support your immune system during the onset of a cold or flu.


Energetically, it is cooling and drying.


Elderberry works well as an expectorant, decongestant, diaphoretic (it makes you sweat), it help both dry and wet coughs, and is a lung strengthener (also known as a lung tonic). It is a great plant to be familiar with, especially at this time of year when the season is changing and colder weather sets in.


That is why I like to make elderberry syrup and take a little every day during the colder seasons.


Here's an easy recipe if you want to make some on your own.



Elderberry Syrup Recipe - (Alcohol is optional)

  • 1 cup elderberry decoction

  • 1/2 cup Honey

- Optional – Adding alcohol makes the syrup shelf stable. If not added, make sure to refrigerate the syrup.

  • 1/2 cup Vodka (between 80-100 proof)


Directions:


Decoction


1. For fresh berries, use 1:1 ratio. If you need 1 cup of decoction, measure 1 cup of fresh berries to 1 cup of water.


For dehydrated berries, use a ratio of 1:2. ½ cup dehydrated berries to 1 cup water.


2. Add elderberries to water and bring water to a simmer.


3. Cook on the stove top for 30 minutes to an hour with the cover on. Keep it at a gentle simmer, not a full boil.


4. Using a fine screened colander or cheesecloth, strain the decoction so you are left with just the liquid. You can compost the berries.



Making the syrup


5. Add honey to the decoction liquid


6. Add alcohol (if using) to the liquid


7. Mix everything together until the honey is completely dissolved.


Suggestions


Add other herbs to the decoction for more medicinal benefits and yummy flavor. Nice additions could be rose hips, ginger and/or cinnamon.

Additionally, instead of straight alcohol, you can substitute part of the vodka with an alcohol-based herbal tincture, like echinacea or ginger.


Dosage

  • 1-3 tsp once a day to strengthen the immune system

  • 1-3 tsp 3 times a day at the beginning of a cold or flu


Let me know if you end up making any elderberry medicine and what you like to do with yours. Right now, I'm looking into making Elderberry gummies. If all goes well, they will be available for sale at the market in November!

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