In late July 2020, a friend invited me to pick newly ripened elderberries in her Portland yard.
She’s got two — just two! — of the shrubs growing, and she can’t keep up. Knowing how coveted they are as medicine, she didn’t want them going to waste.
I eagerly agreed.
Elderberries are a critical tool to enhance immune resilience and improve winter wellness. They’re the only plant medicine singled out in my Immune Resilience Action Guide, and were the subject of a full hour of discussion during my spring Immune Resilience Action Series. They’ve got truly substantial research supporting their efficacy at limiting duration and severity of influenza.
They’re also really easy to make into tasty medicine— and now is the season to do it.
A little bit about elderberries
Elder (Sambucus species) grows in temperate to subtropical climates around the world. They are technically shrubs, having multiple stems rather than a single trunk. Elders range in size from 5 feet to 20 feet, but most garden elders fall in the middle of that range.
The species I prefer for medicine are the ones with the black or blue berries, often Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis or the Pacific Northwest’s native S. cerulea. They’re easy to grow, beautiful and so bountiful!
Elderberries are so beloved in large part because of the way they’re prepared: in a syrup or elixir with sugar or honey as a preservative. Not all herbs are super tasty to most palates. Elderberry syrup is a notable exception.
Harvesting + processing elderberries
My friend’s elders were about one quarter ripe, the branches heavy with the black berries. Off one plant we harvested about one and a half gallons of fruit, from which I’ll end up with about three gallons of finished syrup.
I don’t consider myself a very make-y person. I’m a perfectionist and a reluctant cook, so making medicine has to be very simple or I won’t do it. (This is why the medicines I make myself are for myself and my friends, not for patients. I get the professional stuff for them.)
Elderberry syrup became incredibly easy once I wrapped my brain around one idea: It’s basically a strong, simmered tea of berries plus spices, preserved with sugar, honey and/or alcohol.
The hardest part is separating the berries from the stems. I spent an hour the first night doing that to get 8 cups. But my friend taught me a life-altering trick: Freeze the berries on their stems. I filled two baking pans with elderberry panicles, stems pointing up. What took me an hour to do at room temperature took just minutes with the frozen berries. I will do it this way forever when freezer space is available.
Preserving the harvest
As I type this post, I’ve got 8 cups of fresh elderberries simmering in 8 cups of water (use more for dried berries), spiked with a big handful of fresh ginger, three cinnamon sticks and some black pepper. After about 20 minutes I’ll turn off the heat, mash it up and strain off the liquid.
After that, I’ll pour the decoction into jars, add equal parts honey and/or alcohol. I also freeze some of the unamended decoction, to which I can add honey or alcohol later. That saves space, which is handy when you’re starting to run out of canning jars.
Any mid-proof alcohol you like will do. I prefer neutral-tasting vodka from my friends at Deep Woods Distillery. (If you find yourself in Oakridge, Oregon, say hi.) Other folks use tequila, whiskey or rum to good effect. I like to use raw, local honey whenever possible. (I love what I got from Mickelberry Gardens) Because it goes in after the boiling process, you don’t lost any of its great enzymes. Honey is healing in its own right, helping with coughs and making the medicine go down.
The people’s medicine
The bottom line is that making elderberry syrup is super easy and super cost effective. It’s truly a medicine of the people. If you can access berries in a yard or wild place, the only expenses are the preservatives. But even if you must buy berries, the whole process saves you hugely over buying elderberry syrup at the store.
I strongly encourage folks to make their own. Here’s one recipe from herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, and here’s another from herbalist Dr. Tieroana Low Dog.
If this all sounds like too much work, consider getting this DIY kit from my friends at Mountain Mel’s Essential Goods, an hour out of Portland up on Mount Hood. (Use the code “drorna” to get 10 percent off your order.)
P.S. Want more tips for winter wellness? Grab my Immune Resilience Action Guide.
P.P.S Is elderberry the right medicine for you? Schedule a telemedicine appointment and we’ll talk about it!