The common elder or American elderberry is native to the eastern and central areas of the US and Canada.. We also have species growing in the wild in the mountains of Southern Oregon most likely the species Sambucus caerulea, known as “blue elderberry”. The berries are deep purple inside, like a blackberry, but can have a white or powdery looking coating on the skin. Bushes can grow 30 feet tall!
You can find these bushes along less travelled open roadsides and in marshy or river areas. Elderberries do like damp soil, generally, and open sunlit skies.
Elderberries are famous for their immune-boosting properties and they are rich in Vitamin C, phosphorus and potassium. It has been reported that elderberry boosts immunity and is particularly effective in fighting flu and other viruses, and reduces inflammation. People with HIV/AIDS will find this helpful and Elderberry is also taken by mouth for sinus pain, back and leg pain (sciatica), nerve pain (neuralgia), and chronic fatigue syndrome. (Contra-indications especially for people with auto-immune conditions, toward the end of this article.)
People use Elderberry juice to make everything from jellies and cough drops, to pancake syrup, tinctures with alcohol, glycerin or honey!
This is one of my favorite medicines to make and people are always thrilled to receive. Which would you like to try?
Jars of completed extraction stores well in the freezer or can be made into ice cubes and pulled out for small batches
Can be easily preserved with additions of honey (50% honey can hold a syrup for up to three months with refrigeration)
Mix 50:50 with brandy and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
One can also dehydrate the berries and reconstitute later to create effective medicine as needed.
Another method is to pour hot syrup into jars and process with a simple water bath method.
Tincture with alcohol or glycerin
About Collecting Berries
Elderberries are easily cultivated and can be found growing wild throughout much of the temperate zone in the US and Canada.
Before you search for elderberries, make sure you have researched exactly what you are looking for so as not to mistake similar and possibly toxic look-alikes. Once you recognize them and begin to partake of their wonderful medicine you will easily find them.
When collecting the berries, please remember the Old Wise Tales: Do Not Cut Elder Wood. I have been swinging through my favorite cultivated elderberry groves and found many trees dying as the lowest branches had been cut by a landscaper who unknowingly attempted to prune formally healthy and huge trees. They can be pruned, but again, please research the specific way Elderberry needs to be handled. Here’s a good link to find out more about cultivation, propogation and more: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/elderberry/tips-for-picking-elderberries.htm
Also, do not attempt to pull down high branches to collect the berries as this can cause them to break. Instead use one of those extension pruners used for trim trimming or bring a self standing ladder. Or you can do as I do, and leave the highl ones for Nature’s needs!
For our purposes we will focus on collecting and using the berries.
The berries form in large flat clusters that form a shape similar to the Queen Ann’s Lace flower, that because of the weight will hang down as low as it can so that you can reach them. They love being medicine!
Clip the “hand” of berries at or below the nodule that joins the branch. Choose only plump soft ripe berries and leave to ripen the emerald green or green tinged berries. When collecting from the wild make sure to take no more than 25%/tree as others may be harvesting and the animals and birds will need to have some throughout the season as well. If you are in a cultivated patch, leaving the highest ones will feed wild birds and they can use the medicine too!
After clipping place them gently in your basket, box or bag keeping in mind that they are heavy and easily crushed. Using shallow fruit boxes lined with a cloth is an effective way to transport them.
Important Safety Info:
Elderberries have cyanic compounds in the stems, roots, leaves and seeds and green berries. You can eat a half cup or so of ripe berries without stems etc, without getting sick but cooking them changes the chemistry. If you cook and clean them the compounds are no longer present and you can safely enjoy the benefits. Possibly because of this compound, not only the berries, but the flowers, stems and leaves have also traditionally been used for medicinal applications. Another interesting tip for gardeners to research: Leaf extracts have been used as insect repellents and insecticides to treat fungal disease on plants, such as powdery mildew! Now back to the Elderberries.
For medical contraindications refer to this link:
Once I get the Elderberries home, I submerge the clusters in clean water, fine trimming them as I go. This helps release loose twigs, dried flowerettes and insects which will float to the surface. This can be skimmed off and composted with the trimmed leaves and branchlets. Any extra berries can be tossed to the chickens who will then chase you around the yard looking for more for days. After I drain the clusters on towels and let them dry for a bit, I place most of them, 2 or 3 layers deep, in large baking pans and put them in the freezer. This is one of those tips that will save you endless amounts of time since when they come out of the freezer, the berries crumble off in seconds. Simply gently rub the clusters between flat palms over a deep bowl and pick out the lacy stems and insects you may have missed. You may put them back in the freezer in smaller containers, or cook them off and place in jars (and re-freeze) to save more space. (make sure to leave headroom in the jar for expansion and if you are not sure, leave the lid off until frozen.)
I set aside the prettiest and healthiest clusters of berries as I am trimming. These I carefully destem, pick detritus out of and use to make tincture.
To tincture berries one places them in alcohol of some kind and steeps them for six weeks and then strain and rebottles the finished tincture.
I do not care for the high proof inexpensive vodka normally suggested for tinctures. I have not yet found an organic high proof vodka which is the product I would prefer. Distilled mead, though rare, is the best alcohol I have found to use in this preparation. Some people use brandy. For my latest batch I used a product from Eastern Europe called MWXYZ
To make the tincture I fill whichever jar I am using halfway with the cleaned berries and, then fill to the brim with (your choice of) alcohol.
Use a dark jar, wrap in a cloth and store in a cupboard for 6 weeks.
Strain and bottle in dark jars.
This will keep for a LONG time!
If you are lucky enough to know a beekeeper then badger them for a wee bit of propolis. Propolis is made of different sorts of tree sap that the bees bring home to use as an antimicrobial aspect of their socialized immune system and structural aspect of their hive body.
When you get this home, warm it in the sun and flatten it with your fingers until it is paper thin. It will be sticky. If you put a film of honey on your fingers it will stick less. Lay the flattened piece on parchment paper and place in freezer until it is brittle. Put your oldest coffee grinder in the freezer while you are at it. Use this chilled grinder to quick blast your propolis and add that, as powder to the Elderberry tincture. The propolis chunks can be strained out with the berries. Make sure to add this ingredient to your label as people who are sensitive or have allergies to bees and bee products or trees will need to know. Otherwise propolis is non-toxic and very powerful. It is also very flavorful so if you are new to propolis, start with a small amount in the tincture. (For example a ½ level teaspoon in a quart of berry tincture.) It helps the immune boosting Elderberry by also functioning as an anti-microbial, anti-bacterial agent. Thus, in my opinion, becoming the perfect winter medicine, even a preventative! You make take Elderberry and propolis everyday, though most herbalist suggest using for five days and taking a two day break in order to keep the immunosuppressive effects at their most potent.
Tincture with Glycerin
Using glycerin is a good alcohol-free option for children or people who avoid alcohol. The process for glycerin tinctures are just slightly different than vodka or alcohol tinctures:
Fill the jar 2/3 full with fresh washed elderberries.
Smoosh the elderberries
and then pour glycerin over the smooshed berries to within 1″ of the top.
Put a lid on the jar and place in a dark cabinet for 4 to 6 weeks,
giving it a shake every day (or when remembered).
When done infusing, strain the berries and
store the glycerin tincture in a clean bottle.
Store out of direct sunlight or in dark bottles.
If you have a steam juicer, this is the best method. I do not have one myself, so I use the following equipment and method:
THINGS THAT ARE HELPFUL (to me)
I use my biggest crock pot and/or stainless steel pasta pot.
I have my favorite, long-handled, now purple, wooden spoon
I use a plastic funnel for narrow bottles and a wide one for jars
Any old jars, though mason are the best
I have a large bowl with a handle and pouring spout
A conical colander with stand and wooden pestle
Big container to put stems in, like a five gallon jug
Towels that can be stained
To cook the Elderberries, put 2:1, water:berries in a stainless steel or unchipped enamel pot or crockpot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour or more until liquid is reduced and thickened slightly.
I let this mixture cool then, using a ladle and funnel , pour into clean, sterilized jars.
When I get to the layer of berries that have sunk to the bottom of the cooled juice, I pour them into a cone sieve used for making jelly and use the wooden pestle to squeeze the thick goodness out of the berries. This juice may have stems or seeds that squeezed through, so filtering through an added layer (or two) of cheesecloth is an added step to create a super clean product. I have also strained through an old flour sack dishcloth (make sure of course it has been rinsed clean of any soaps from the laundry.) The thicker portion is best for medicine and the lighter strain great for jellies and syrup although both can be used for either application.
So now that you have tons of cooled juice, what now?
It must be preserved or frozen or used within two weeks of extraction.
Recipes and ideas
These berries can be used in medicinal applications or as syrup, wine and jelly.
I enjoy using them as medicine which has many variations and is only limited by your own available ingredients and imagination!
Here’s a simple recipe: In fact one of the simplest EVER!
This basic recipe can be flavored or supplemented with other flavorful or medicinal herbs.
Choose a few/batch, do a couple different batches, mix it up!
For each additional ½ cup herbs, mushroom or roots, add 1 cup water to the simmering juice.
Sliced lemons and or oranges
Place everything but honey in a stainless or enamel pot.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer for 30 or so minutes.
Smash berries to release juice;
strain the mixture through a sieve/strainer or layers of cheesecloth.
Reserve the juice and discard the mush.
Let the juice cool enough to handle, but still warm.
Gently stir in honey, lemon juice or apple cider vinegar with a whisk until thoroughly combined and transfer to a lidded jar.
Keeps in refrigerator 2 to 3 months if you have a 50% sugar content via the honey.
This is only preserved via refrigeration.
If you would like to shelve the juice then do not add the honey or other add-ons. Instead follow normal canning procedures with the basic recipe. If you make a simple elderberry juice and water recipe then you can pull them off the shelf at any time, bring to simmer and add any old add-ons that may be needed for just that moment. If you leave it plain you can later create jelly or syrup later also!
Canning the juice:
The juice can be canned in a hot water bath.
Fill your big canning kettle up full enough to cover your jars and bring up the temperature during the last few minutes of your simmering.
Place your clean jars in a sink full of hot water to prevent the glass from cracking.
While the syrup is still hot, pour juice into warmed jars.
Swish your prepared lids in the hot water and then place the prepared lids on the jars. Tighten the rings and then give a quarter turn back.
Place jars in the boiling water in the canning pot. In order to properly seal them, make sure they are submerged in the water.
For pint or quart jars process them (let sit in boiling water) for 15 minutes.
Pull the jars out of the water and place on racks to cool. It helps to have a jar lifter, which is a clever sort of tongs that is made for this sort of thing.
After the prepared lids suck down then the seal has been secured. If it pops back and forth when you touch it, reprocess the jar for a few more minutes in the hot water bath.
After the juice jars have cooled, remove the ring and write the ingredients on the lid or label.
Although Elderberry is a powerful medicine it is also a food, so dosage is not too picky.
To keep the immunity boosting properties at peak, consume this medicine for five days and let off for two.
But go ahead and make jelly for toast and cheesecake and syrup for pancakes and sparkly drinks, and what the heck: a batch of wine!) and enjoy throughout the fall and winter! Because its delicious!
Here are some safe dosages to start with as preventative medicine for onset of flu/cold/”catching something.”
Adults: 2 teaspoons 4 times daily (at sign of first symptoms)
Children: 1 teaspoon 4 times daily (at sign of first symptoms)
For daily maintenance, three to five days after first symptoms occur:
People with "Autoimmune diseases" such as multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or other such conditions: should not use elderberry as it powerfully boosts the immune system (which isn’t necessarily what you want to do with autoimmune conditions.)