Backyard Survival Herbs - Elderberry - For Taste or Tonic
Winter’s still hanging on and with it, all of the usual germs that thrive in shut-up environments, breeding like crazy in the same warmth we bask in. No fear –the elderberry plant is here!
Sambucus of the honeysuckle family is a bush from around 5 feet to to a treelike 30 feet or more tall that presents health benefits from spring through fall. It is a veritable medicine chest in and of itself. Usually found on the edges of cleared fields and woodlands in moist soils, the elderberry can be found in the spring by identifying its delicately scented, creamy, lacelike blossom heads which can be globular or flat-headed depending on the species. These blossoms will transform into berries through the summer until late fall, when they will droop with the juicy abundance of berries colored from red to amber to black. The ones we have around here are mostly a deep purple and I believe are preferential to the lighter colored ones for flavor and digestibility when raw.
The blossoms can be plucked in the spring and dried in the shade as rapidly as possible to lock in the healing agents. (Just realize that every blossom you pluck will be an absence of berries in the fall.) I bring mine indoors and run a fan on them or place them in the dehydrator. These blossoms are a wonderful asset in treating colds and flu or any upper respiratory catarrhal inflammations like hayfever and allergies. They will aid in the elimination of toxins through the skin (diaphoretic), help strengthen and heal the respiratory system (pectoral) as well as help remove all the mucousal buildup throughout the body (anti-catarrhal). Mixed with golden rod, an infusion drunk hot 3 times a day will really help get things loosened up and moving along. We always throw an onion poultice on the chest to boot for chest catarrh and apply my secret essential oil mix for a good night’s rest overnight. You can also make a tincture from the flowers.
Yes, You Can Use the Leaves, Too!
Before I move on to my favorite part – the berries, let me just add that the leaves are great, too! They have emollient properties as well as vulnery to soothe and heal the skin. I have heard of an ointment from the leaves being applied to tumors, but they are mostly used for bruises, sprains and other skin wounds. Here’s a quick recipe I intend to make next spring: Pick a half pound of fresh elderberry leaves, (Obviously you don’t want to strip a plant bare. Find a hedgerow of them and take a few from each plant.) then add to those 4 ounces each of plantain leaves (see my post on plantain) and wormwood leaves and finally 2 ounces of ground ivy. Cut it all up into small pieces and heat in 4 pounds of petroleum jelly until the leaves are crisp. Strain and pour the ointment into containers. I’ve done some research on petroleum jelly – I mean, with the name itself, it does not sound like a product we should want on our skin, however what I have found is that it is a “mixture of mineral oils, paraffin and microcrystalline waxes.” Considering the alternatives, expense and versatility-wise, I’ll likely make my first batch with good ol’ petroleum jelly.
Roll Out the Red Carpet
Okay, now, stand back in awe at the majesty of the elderberry. They are so plentiful and people only eat a rare small percentage of them. I have been collecting and using elderberries for decades. My own mom made elderberry jelly and so my tastebuds are tuned to their unique flavor. In fact, everyone in our family prefers elderberry jelly to any other kind. I also juice the berries to have on hand for making tonics and syrups for the winter as we need them. The berries are also diaphoretic like the flowers but are diuretic and laxative as well. In the early fall, the branches just sag with antioxidants, vitamins C, A and B, organic pigments, tannin, amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, calcium, niacin and three times more protein than blueberries!
Don't Let the Work Deter You!
To gather the berries, you want to cut off the heads. I fill up 5 gallon bucketsful. Then head home with your haul and get immediately busy. You will need to work every berry off of the stems to avoid the bitter/toxic taste from the stems seeping into your berries. So if you hope to juice them on the stems, think again. Ick. It is a lot of work where many hands make it a lighter task. So if it’s only you, consider only picking as many as you can de-stem in a day or have a party and invite friends to help! Some people recommend using a comb to destem. I just never found that helpful. Once upon a time, at an antique shop or somewhere, I saw an elderberry destemmer – all I can remember is a cylinder with spikes coming out of it…wish I’d’ve bought it!
So Many Choices
Then the berries are ready for action. You can blanch and then dehydrate the berries for a flavorful twist in baked goods or you can freeze them. Lay them out on trays to freeze, then scoop off the trays into bags so they are each individually frozen instead of clumped together in a useless mess. This way you can just scoop out a few spoonsful at a time. Or you can make juice. I decided last year that after all that work, I wanted to ensure the greatest yield of juice, so I didn’t steam juice them in my fancy schmancy Finlandian juicer, but I just covered them with water and simmered them, squished them a bit and drained them. Then you’re set to make jelly or tonics or just can the juice for a later date.
Elderberry - It's Fer What Ails Ya!
This week I pulled a quart off the shelf and put it on the stove with dried herbs for a cold/sore throat tonic for my son. It is yummy and helpful! Boiling the tonic down and then adding good local raw honey makes for a very soothing syrup. I am told that bioflavonoids and other proteins in the juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell. I can personally attest that people with the flu who use elderberry juice experience less severe symptoms and a shorter duration of illness. In fact, elderberry juice was used to treat a flu epidemic in Panama in 1995!
To add to the awe and splendor, let me just cite a few more stats on the elderberry: They are listed in the CRC handbook of medicinal Herbs as well as Mosby’s Nursing Drug Reference for colds, flu, yeast infections, nasal and chest congestion and hay fever. Hasassah’s Oncology Lab in Israel has determined that the elderberry stimulates the immune system to such a degree that they are treating AIDS and cancer pateints with it. At a research center in Germany, they have shown that the anthocyanins in elderberries boost the production of cytokines, which are unique proteins which act as messengers in the immune system to regulate immune response, helping defend the body against disease. These anthocyanins harbor way more antioxidant capacity than either vitamin C or vitamin E! And finally, at the University of Gratz in Austria, elderberry extract has been proven to reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. So – like I said, the elderberry is a survival medicine chest in and of itself! If you don’t have any on hand, go out next spring and look for the blossoms!
Disclaimer: Of course we claim no responsibility for your experience with these herbs. Everything we share is for information purposes only and is not to be taken as professional or medical advice. Do your own research! Always consult a professional. Be wise. Consider always the chance of an allergic reaction. We are all unique in body chemistry. We are NOT a medical professionals by any means, however we have saved our family a boatload of annoyance and money by being resourceful and using what is right at our feet – literally. See full disclaimer here.
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