With the beginning of autumn comes the ripening of the elderberry, my personal harbinger of fall. Each year I trudge into the swamp lands with my knee-high boots, garden sheers in hand, to gather the clusters of berries as steely autumnal clouds slide across the sky. Some branches are so laden with the deep purple fruit that they’re pulled nearly to the ground and rebound like coiled springs once I relieve them of their burden. I slosh through murky water, trying to find the best clusters — humming aloud to myself in case I happen upon a black bear involved in similar pursuit. It’s a satisfying way to spend a few hours. By the end, I’ll have earned a few scratches, my lower back will be aching and my fingers will be stained the color of a deep bruise — but my basket will be full of berries.
It’s no coincidence that the berries ripen just in time for the start of the cooler season when everyone’s immune systems are put to the test, as they offer us exactly the support we need to keep our immune systems healthy through the seasonal transition. Packed with vitamin C and a potent cocktail of antioxidants (including flavanols, anthocyanins and phenolic acids), they act as a nutritional powerhouse for our immune systems — supplying the very nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy. The immune-supporting activity of the berries has been demonstrated in numerous studies, where daily administration of elderberry extracts have been shown to offer excellent in-the-moment support.
In addition to vitamin C and antioxidants to support a healthy inflammatory response, elderberries contain good amounts of iron, vitamin A, Vitamin B6, calcium and potassium as well as providing a hefty dose of fiber, making the them very nutritious. They should not be eaten raw, as they can cause gastric upset in their uncooked form, but once cooked, are nothing but delicious. They can be combined with other berries in crumbles, compotes and cobblers; baked into pies; or made in delicious jams and jellies. You can also cook them down to make elderberry syrup or ferment them into an unbelievably delicious wine. They are safe for everyone in the family to consume and are especially well suited to children, who tend to love the magical inky purple shade of the juice. You can even impress them by adding a squeeze of lemon and instantly transforming the juice to pink — it’s a magic trick certain to inspire appreciation.
In terms of how best to use the berry, I like to do a little of all of the above, but if you choose just one way to enjoy elderberries, elderberry syrup is the way to go. You can make the syrup from fresh or dried berries – but if you use fresh, be sure you have the correct species: the berries should be black rather than red, and drooping downwards rather than standing upright in umbels. If you harvest your own be sure to use a trusty Plant ID guide. Otherwise, you can purchase dried berries from your local herb shop or through an online retailer.
Simple Elderberry Syrup
Based off of Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe in The Family Herbal
I like to make a very basic recipe to which other herbs or spices can be added later if needed. I prefer honey as my sweetener, as it imparts its own health properties to the syrup, but you can experiment with other sweeteners, such as maple syrup, if you wish.
Makes 1 quart syrup
- 4 cups fresh or 2 cups dried elderberries
- 12 cups water
- 2 – 3 cups honey
- Place the berries in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Simmer until the liquid has been reduced by half, about 45 minutes to an hour.
- Smash the berries using the back of a spoon or a potato masher. Pass through a fine-mesh strainer or alternatively a food mill or champion juicer.
- For each cup of liquid you have, add 1/2 – 2/3 cup honey. If you prefer to make it less sweet, be sure to refrigerate the syrup to prevent spoilage.
How to use your syrup:
- Take 1 tablespoon of the syrup in hot water or herbal tea daily (ginger, green tea or peppermint being especially good), as a prophylactic and immune strengthener
- Drizzle over Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and/or granola for a delicious snack or desert
- Use in place of maple syrup over pancakes, waffles or French toast
- Mix a few tablespoons into soda water or ginger-ale with a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of fresh mint for an alcohol free cocktail, or add a little shot of vodka to spice it up.
The syrup should keep for up to one year if refrigerated.
Happy elderberry season and a healthy immune system to you!
Writer Danielle Charles Davies holds a Bsc in Herbal Science from Bastyr University and completed the two-year clinical training program at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism in Montpelier, VT. Her writing has appeared in Taproot, The Journal of the American Herbalist Guild, and Kindred Magazine, among others. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband, two dogs and eight ducks. She blogs at www.bluemoonkitchen.com.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.