Last year I got to pick some Blackberries to make jam and this year my foraging activities have gone up another notch. Foraging is not something you can put on the long finger as the collection of this ‘free food’ is seasonal and a little time consuming. Late August/September and possibly into October is Blackberry season in Ireland, as well as many other wild berries. This year I also managed to locate some Elderberry trees/shrubs right alongside the Blackberry bushes. Elderberry is increasingly used in nutritional supplements, syrups and teas for it’s anti-viral, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. A newish branch of the health industry ‘Nutraceuticals’ (functional food), explores and isolates the healing properties of individual foods. New by name but not really a new concept, it is the wheel reinvented. ‘Curcumin’ a healing property found in turmeric is a good example of this. Even some of our pharmaceutical drugs have their roots in nature. Aspirin, for example, has its origins in the Weeping Willow tree. The pain relieving property called ‘salicylic acid’ is present in willow bark and was used as far back as 3500 years ago for pain relief. Other foods that contain ‘salicylates’ include clover, beans, peas, tomatoes and cruciferous greens like broccoli. Back then, of course, it wasn’t isolated in a lab or available in the form of an over-the-counter pill. Still, it is useful to be reminded that most of our modern day medicines can be found in their natural form in food. Why?? Well, so that you can take health and wellness into your own hands as much as possible and regain some trust in the power of nature! The added bonus is you can get it from nature ‘at little or no cost’ except for your time and effort.
It is advisable, of course, to research whatever wild berries you decide to pick and eat. No excuse, YouTube and the internet are awash with information. Don’t spend money on expensive courses, set yourself the task of doing your own research. I have never picked or used elderberry before this year so I needed to do some research and here’s what I found out:
It can be called by many other names including Black elder. Known as ‘the medicine chest of the country people’. Traditionally grown in gardens for protection from the ‘Elder Mother or Spirit of the Elder’. It was believed that if you stood underneath it at midnight on midsummer night you would see the King of the Elves go by and if you planted one near the house it would guard the inhabitants from the evil spells of witchcraft and thunder.
With just one Elderberry tree you won’t be able to have both the flowers that appear in June/July and the berries that grow in the Autumn. If the flowers are all harvested there will be no berries. The wood of the tree has been used to make musical instruments. The leaves are not edible but they have insecticide properties and can be used around other plants to ward off pests. The berries should not be eaten raw. They are odourless, sour and astringent. They can be harvested when they have turned dark purple, almost black. Interestingly, the berries have been used in the distant past to dye cloth and as a hair dye by the Greeks and Romans.
Medicinally, elderberries are used to support immune health, to treat colds and flu, relieve digestive issues, induce perspiration and are anti-viral. It has a beneficial effect on chronic catarrh of the respiratory passage. It is a stimulant for the immune system.** [See safety note below]
I picked up a very useful hint about picking the berries off the stem, but only AFTER I had already made my syrup!! Next time 🙂 This tip could save you a lot of time. Elderberries are picked by the stem with its cluster of berries attached. ‘Put these in a bag and into the freezer. When frozen the berries can just be pulled off effortlessly’. Could be cold on the ol’ hands though!
My Recipe For Elderberry Syrup
I reckon I had about 200-300 grams of berries all thoroughly washed. I put these directly into a pot. To them I added the juice of one lemon and a teaspoon of dried ginger. I could have added cinnamon or a cinnamon stick but decided not to. I brought it to boiling point for about 5 minutes stirring it regularly and turned the heat down to a simmer for about 45 more minutes. I also washed and cooked some rosehips separately. To that I added lemon and some brown sugar. Rosehips have a beautifully sweet taste and I though they would compliment the elderberries but they are optional. Rosehips are packed with Vitamin C. When cooked sufficiently I sieved both the elderberry and the small rosehip mix into a clean bowl. It took a while to extract as much of the syrupy juice as possible. The kitchen looked like a murder scene with all the RED stained dish cloths, pots and bowls. Still, I ended up with a bottle of syrup. When it had cooled down sufficiently I added two teaspoons of Manuka honey. Once bottled it needs to be stored in the fridge. Oh and it passed the taste test, it’s really delicious!!
This syrup is mostly made of elderberries and the + (plus ingredients) included lemon juice, ginger, rosehips and manuka honey, all of which are also used to fight colds and flu.
Use and Safety
The syrup can be used as a preventative measure heading into the winter months (2-3 teaspoons per day). And at the first sign of a sore throat or cold, the anti-viral syrup acts as an immune booster (1-3 tablespoons per day three times per day). The syrup can be added to hot water for a medicinal hydrating drink.
Elderberry is generally considered safe. There are no known drug interactions with Elderberry at the writing of this blog. However, as previously stated, it should not be eaten raw and anyone with an autoimmune condition may want to be cautious with elderberry. Why?? **Autoimmune conditions are caused by a hyper-vigilant / hyper-active immune system and this syrup is an immune ‘booster’. Its purpose is to activate the army of natural killers cells, T and B cells etc. to fight those invading pathogens. In this respect Elderberry is similar to Echinacea in that it is best used at the onset of a cold or flu to knock it on the head and reduce recovery time. But unlike Echinacea, Elderberry in a smaller dose (above) can also be used as preventative medicine. It may serve someone with an autoimmune condition to opt for immune ‘modulating’ food medicine to treat colds and flu.
Why make it yourself?
Obviously if you don’t have access to the great outdoors then you always have the option of buying elderberries and all the plus ingredients. Alternatively you can buy Elderberry Syrup. I looked it up on-line and the price varies. I’ve seen 195ml for €26 reduced from €34. Another site had 237ml for €27. These would not include postage etc. I managed to get 270ml almost free or at very little cost.
Apart from the money saving, it was an opportunity to have a slow but productive day out in nature with an appreciation of just what I have access to close by and which can provide abundant health properties. It is kinda cliche to talk about ‘connecting to nature’ and far be it from me to go all ‘woo woo’, however, I did feel a sense of identifying with ‘the land’ I live in. Also, when I was picking off the berries (it took a while) I was wondering if I just bought them in a shop or ordered them online, would I be connecting with my environment – meaning “these have grown in my locality, I eat them, they become part of me”. Circle of life type of thing! Somehow it made sense!!
Above all else, for me it is just about taking another step towards building ‘trust’ in natural remedies. In my experience as a Nutritional Therapist I have found the biggest block for people seeking health solutions through alternative means, is ‘trust’. When it comes to ‘trusting’ food as medicine people, and I include myself in this, are a long way off recovering that trust. Collectively, we have very little awareness of how our minds have been educated to fear anything that the doctor doesn’t prescribe, whilst everyone and everything else is subject to intense scrutiny and suspicion. The mindset perceives the different modalities as opposed but in reality they are not. Why not use both? Do what works for you. The only way to break through those fears that have been imposed on us is to try natural health solutions for yourself. Research it, try it, taste it (trust your body) find out what works for you. Ultimately your health is ”your’ responsibility this is the truth.
Just like the pharmaceutical industry seeks to find a pill for every ill, the health industry can also follow a similar pattern by matching a nutraceutical to a condition, and unfortunately the health practitioner can be treated in a similar manner to a GP (but perhaps viewed as a healthier version). It is a step forward in most cases but the wellness industry is still an ‘industry’ beyond the knowledge and control of the individual. Also, most people are unable to get their heads around the concept of an ‘holistic’ approach to health. We seem to need proof with qualifications, statistics and approval from on-high before we can ‘trust’. The old adage “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” no longer seems relevant. Example, the cure for your digestive issues MAY be in ‘chewing your food slowly’ but a client might feel cheated by this as a prescription instead of a tub of digestive enzymes!
You won’t have to follow anyone else’s advice if you have the benefit of your own experience. Empower yourself! Eat well, sleep well, stress less, exercise to moderation, get out in the daylight early in the day, take time out in nature. You know this makes sense, no one needs to tell you… .maybe just a little reminder? 🙂
- Herbs – a Concise Guide in Colour: Stary, Dr. F, Jirasek Dr. V :Hamlyn [Middlesex] 1973
- Herbal – The Country Diary: Sarah Hollis : Bloomsbury Books [London] 1994
- YouTube : Search ‘Elderberry Syrup’
- The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion: Amy K. Fewell : Guilford, Connecticut 2018