Elderberries are among Europe’s most esteemed remedies for colds and flu. Travel through any European country in wintertime, and you’ll find a variety of Elder products lining pharmacy shelves. This large, handsome shrub has played an important role in the health and well-being of communities throughout history. In Old World tradition, an Elder bush was commonly planted at the edge of the herb garden as the “protector” of the garden. Even its name, the Elder, denotes its place of status in the garden.
History aside, to this day, Elderberries are some of the best medicine and food we have and can be found growing in gardens in the wild throughout most of temperate North America. It’s prized not only by humans; the tender tips are beloved by deer, moose, and other grazing animals, and more than 35 native birds are known to feast on the ripe berries in summer.
Elderberries make some of the best syrup and wine you’ll ever taste! They also make great jams, jellies, and pies. Elder’s berries have immune-enhancing properties, and they’re often combined with Echinacea in immune-stimulating remedies for colds. The berries also have powerful antiviral properties and are helpful in treating viral infections including flu, herpes, and shingles.1Excerpted from Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide © 2012 by Rosemary Gladstar, published by Storey Publications. All rights reserved.
Elderberries contain organic pigments, tannin, amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, vitamin A and B and a large amount of vitamin C. They are also mildly laxative, diuretic, and diaphoretic. Flavonoids, including quercetin, are believed to account for the therapeutic actions of the Elderberry flowers and berries. According to test tube studies these flavonoids include anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants and protect cells against damage. Infusions of the fruit are said to be beneficial for nerve disorders, back pain, and have been used to reduce inflammation of the urinary tract and bladder.2Sidor, A., & Gramza-Michałowska, A. (2015, October 1). Advanced research on the antioxidant and health benefit of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) in food -a review. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756464614002400.
To learn more about the health benefits and properties of Elderberry, read my blog post “Elderberry Medicine: Potent and Powerful.”
How To Make Elderberry Syrup
Syrups begin with a very concentrated decoction. Combine an herb (in this case, fresh ripe Elderberries) with water in a pot. Set the pot over low heat, bring to a simmer, cover partially and cook down the liquid to about half the original volume.
Strain the herbs/berries from the liquid. Measure the volume of the liquid, then pour it back into the pot. Add your desired amount of sweetener. Most recipes call for 2 cups of sweetener (a 1:1 ratio of sweetener to liquid), but I find that far too sweet for my taste.
Warm the mixture over low heat, stirring well. Warm the mixture only enough that the honey combines with the liquid; keep the temperature below 110°F so that you don’t destroy the living enzymes in the honey.
Remove from the heat. Pour the syrup into bottles, label carefully, and store in the refrigerator. The syrup will keep for 2 to 3 months.
A Favorite Syrup Recipe
This may be one of the best Elderberry syrup recipes on the planet! It’s graciously shared by my friends Nancy and Michael Phillips, authors of The Herbalist’s Way.3Phillips, N., Phillips, M., & Gladstar, R. (2005). The Herbalist’s Way: The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines (Revised ed.). Chelsea Green Publishing. Delicious enough to use just for sheer flavor alone, Elderberry syrup is also helpful for warding off colds and flu and speeding up recovery.4Zakay-Rones, Z., Thom, E., Wollan, T., & Wadstein, J. (2004). Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. The Journal of international medical research, 32(2), 132–140. https://doi.org/10.1177/147323000403200205
- 2 quarts Fresh ripe Elderberries See variations below for using dried berries
- 1/4 ounce Freshly grated Ginger root
- 1/2 tsp Ground Cloves
- Combine the Elderberries with ¼ cup of water in a large soup pot and simmer until soft. Strain out the pulp, reserving the liquid. Compost the solids and return the liquid to the pot.
- Add the Ginger and Cloves and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid reduces to about half its original volume. Pour the juice into a measuring cup and note its volume, then return to the pot.
- Add the same amount of honey and stir until thoroughly combined. Let cool, then bottle. Store in the refrigerator, and use within 12 weeks.
- To Use: To treat or fight off a cold or flu, take 1 to 2 tablespoons several times throughout the day.
I’ve followed this recipe using dried Elderberries and the syrup has turned out, while not quite as delicious, still effective. Use 1 quart of dried berries with 2 quarts water. Cook over low heat with the lid slightly ajar so that steam can escape, until the water is reduced by half. Strain, add the Ginger and Clove and continue as above.
Adding Elderflowers to the syrup introduces a diaphoretic property, helping you to “sweat out” a fever. After cooking down the juice with the Ginger and Cloves, you can turn off the heat, add ½ cup dried Elderflowers to the hot juice, put the lid on and let infuse for 20 minutes. Then strain the flowers from the syrup and proceed to add the honey.
You can also make a medicinal Elderberry tincture– though Elderberry syrup is so good that it’s hard to recommend this method! Tincturing, however, will provide a longer shelf life and more stable product.
Helen Ward’s Elderberry Syrup
I recommend this fabulous recipe from Helen Ward, Director of The Science & Art of Herbalism Course, for a simpler, less-sweet and so tasty syrup.
Helen begins by encouraging you to harvest your own berries: Find an Elderberry bush near you which you have properly identified as a Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Be mindful of where you harvest that the Elderberry is not right on a roadside or on a property which sprays chemicals– and that you have permission to harvest from the plant.
Identify the berries and when they are ripe to pick. Only harvest the Black Elderberries as the Red Elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) are toxic . You should ALWAYS cook the Black Elderberries as the raw berries may give you a stomachache.
Helen Ward’s Elderberry Syrup
- 2 cups Fresh Elderberries or 1 cup dried
- 4 cups Water
- 1/2 cup Honey
- Add Elderberries to 4 cups of water and simmer for one hour.
- Stir in your healing intentions. This is a very important step! As the medicinal qualities of the Elderberries infuse into the water, you could sing your favorite song, share a prayer or say “May this Elderberry Syrup bring love and good health to those who drink it!” Whichever you choose (or all of them), know that you are infusing your own magic.
- Strain the berries and place them in the compost.
- Put the Elderberry juice back in the pot, bringing it to a simmer. Add ½ cup honey, making sure it completely melts and infuses creating the perfect Elderberry Syrup.
- Bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks. (Honey acts as a preservative, since this recipe has half the typical honey added to a medicinal syrup, make sure to refrigerate).
Adults: Take 2 teaspoons Elderberry syrup daily.
Children: Take 1 teaspoon daily. For intensive use:
Adults: Take 2 teaspoons Elderberry syrup four times daily.
Children: Take 1 teaspoon four times daily.
A Word of Caution
Only the Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) is edible. The species that has red berries (Sambucus racemosa) is somewhat toxic. Learn to tell the difference before making these or you may end up with toxic medicine!
I hope that you feel inspired to cook up a batch of your own Elderberry syrup! Perhaps try both of these recipes to see which one sits well with your body. A daily dose of Elderberry will help to support a healthy immune system. Or, if you or a loved one are feeling poorly, a larger dose will speed up your recovery time. And don’t forget– just enjoying Elderberry syrup as a delightful condiment on desserts or added to sparkling water for a tasty fizzy drink is certainly encouraged!
I’ve included other delicious and powerful Elderberry recipes in my books Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health and Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide.