Elder is probably the most well-known antiviral herb on the market at present. It can assist in reducing inflammation in the sinuses to relieve congestion, eliminate metabolic waste products, stimulate sweating to remediate fevers, and reduce flu and cold symptoms. Elderberries contain shikimic acid, an antiviral compound that is used to create Tamiflu, an anti-flu pharmaceutical.
The Truth About Elderberries:
While vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, potassium, niacin, iron, cyanogenic glycoside, viburnic and shikimic acids, and other health supporting alkaloids and nutrients in elderberries can withstand heating and drying, the Vitamin C complex, polyphenols, and many other flavonoids (AKA antioxidants) cannot. Heat and drying, whether it is stove top heat, or drying with stoves, dehydrators, microwaves, (for the love of all things holy, please never use a microwave to dry herbs or for any other reason), or any other heat source will degrade to destroy many the flavonoids in plants (1). Bioflavonoids are capable of increasing bodily health by supporting strong immune function and cell formation, destroying cancer causing free radicals in the body that corrupt cellular information, have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties, and are antiviral and antibacterial to name just a few of their actions in the body. The most commonly found information on the “interwebs” says to use dried elderberries, make a tea, and then make a syrup from the tea. Boom! Drying and heating. You’ve immediately lost a very important component of elderberries’ super powers!
Some websites even go as far as to advise the use plain sugar instead of honey in making the syrup. While honey contains its own antibacterial properties and aids in the extraction of flavonoids, alkaloids, and nutrients; sugar, on the other hand, does none of this and decreases immune activity for several hours upon ingestion. Please be very skeptical of herbal information given out, and read all blogs, facebook posts, instagram and pinterest cuteness with a grain of salt. Much information is of “copy and paste” quality. What to believe? Just because the same information is on several sites does not mean it’s good info. Do your research before harvesting and making herbal medicine.
In order to retain the immune supporting and antiviral vitamin C complex and flavonoids in addition to the alkoloids, it’s best to prepare elderberries fresh. Flavonoids/antioxidants are water soluble. Use 80 to 100 proof vodka in your remedies to ensure that they will be extracted well. Remember that the stems and seeds of elder contain toxins and must be removed. In order to easily separate the elderberries from the rest of the plant material, freeze the harvest overnight. Garble the berries from the stems while they are still frozen. Once the berries thaw out, it becomes difficult, time consuming, and messy to remove the stems. Now, put a small amount of berries at a time in a bowl, and gently squish them to break open the skins, making sure to not break open the seeds. Fill a jar 1/2 of the way up the jar with all your fresh squished berries. Fill half the jar with either brandy or apple cider vinegar, then top off with honey. Brandy and honey make an elixir, apple cider vinegar and honey make an oxymel. Tightly cover the jar with a plastic lid, or with a piece of parchment paper between the metal lid and the vinegar if making an oxymel, and put it on a dish as there may be some leakage. Let macerate in your fridge (to prevent fermentation) for a month, then strain all plant material including the seeds. If you choose to make a straight up alcohol tincture, fill your jar halfway with the mashed berries, then fill to the top of the jar with 100 proof alcohol to extract and preserve all alkaloids and antioxidants. It is not necessary to refrigerate the alcohol tinctures while they’re macerating. Be sure to put a label on your jars/bottles so you know what you made!
A half to a whole teaspoon in a cup of warm water several times a day is all that is needed to provide relief. As elixirs and oxymels take a month to macerate fully, you might want to get on this right away! You, your family, and your friends will be very happy when you provide them with herbal medicine that works well! I’m a big proponent for “getting the medicine to the people in a way they’ll take it.” I teach this to my apprentices. How can we get the medicine of elder in someone who won’t take a tincture? Or doesn’t like the taste of vinegar? My husband is a big fan of honey. He puts it on his bread and in his coffee every day. I make several gallons of herbal honeys; willow, ginger, lavender, devil’s club, dandelion, hawthorn, wild currants, and elderberry are just a few of what I’ve made for him this year. I keep a selection of small honeypots on the table for him to dip into every day. I make him lemonade with herbal honeys and elixirs in them. He utilizes herbal medicine every day, but it is so part of his daily habit now that he doesn’t realize it. I’m happy to know that I’m feeding him well and keeping him healthy. He’s just happy to eat his honey!
For more info on herbal medicine making, read our plant medicine made easy tutorial.
For reducing inflammation and fevers, and eliminating metabolic waste, the elder *FLOWERS* of the blue (not red) elder can used. You’ll find these available in June, generally speaking. It could be earlier or later, depending on environment and weather each year. To make a great-tasting and effective elder syrup, put 2 cups of water in a saucepan. Add 1 cup of dried blue elderflowers. Bring to a boil, turn it down to a medium simmer, and let this simmer until half of the liquid is gone. The resulting brew is called a decoction. Strain the elder from the decoction, rinse out your pan, and return the strained decoction to the pan. Add twice the amount of honey to the decoction, heat until the honey is thoroughly incorporated into the decoction, and jar it up. You now have elderflower syrup that can be taken by the teaspoon straight, added to teas, warm water, drizzled over yogurt, ice cream, oatmeal, and more. Kids over 2 years of age love this syrup, and it will keep all winter in the fridge. I know the latest info is that babes over 1 year can ingest honey, but I’m not buying the hype. Keep in mind that the flavonoids in the flowers will be destroyed, but other alkaloids will remain intact.
There you have it. The truth about elderberries! Keep believing in herbal medicine, because it’s awesome, and be healthy!
- Tsao, Rong. (2010) Chemistry and Biochemistry of Dietary Polyphenols. pp 1231-1246. doi: 10.339/nu2121231 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257627/