The first herb to initiate me into the secret world of magic and herbal medicine was the Elder tree (Sambucus nigra). I was twelve years old, and it was the first summer at my grandparents new home in rural Ontario.  My grandfather called me out to the backyard to meet him behind the garden house, near the bayou of the lake.  There, growing elegantly  amidst wild grasses was an old Elder tree. Before my grandfather even told me what this herb is used for traditionally in his native home of Germany, I was in love.  I was in love with the slender bark, soft leaves, and deep black berries.  This was the first time I was consciously aware of a plant communicating to me.  I knew, just knew exactly what my grandfather was going to share: “Traditionally, the flowers are used to cool a fever and the aches of arthritis” he said.  “The berries make the most delicious cough syrup, it fills up that empty place inside that makes you vulnerable to sickness: it’ll stop a cold in it’s tracks if you take it when you’re tired.  Just don’t cut the tree down, or the Hydemoder will come and get you.” The Hydemoder is a Fairy that is said to live in the wood of this tree, some say preparing to guide the beloved dead to the other side of the veil.

It turns out he’s right – about Elder being protective against colds.  This study from 2009 states, “that flavonoids from the elderberry extract bind to H1N1 virions and, when bound, block the ability of the viruses to infect host cells.”  Not only have I experienced the antiviral action of this herb personally, but I’ve seen the benefits of Elderberry shorten the duration of infections like the common cold or influenza, and  observed the protective benefits of regularly consuming it when everyone else seems to be sick.  If I’m committed to taking Elderberry extract when I have a cold, it can only last three days.  Yes, you read that correctly – three days! I’ve experienced this year after year.  And if I take this herb at the first sign of a cold or other acute illness – it can stop it in it’s tracks.

An old German name for the Elder tree is Holunder, which is said to refer to the ancient Earth Goddess called by the same name.  Tree worship was common all over Europe, and the Elder tree was said to be sacred to the people and their Gods.  The Fairy that lived within her bark was said to be the protectress of the tree, and cutting the Elder down would anger Her.  Planting an Elder near one’s home was considered protective as the Fairy would watch over those who planted the tree.  Plus, the home dwellers could benefit from the medicine of the tree’s flowers and berries, gathering them to quell a fever, ease arthritic pain, respiratory illnesses, fatigue from prolonged sickness, and increase overall resistance if immunity was compromised.  Here are some Elderberries that my grandmother harvested and mailed to me last summer from the very same Elder tree I met over two decades ago. When I opened the package, I was deeply moved.  I love that she knew the significance of this tree for me. Here they are:

The berries are sour, astringent and slightly sweet.  Astringent herbs dry up mucous membranes, tightening and toning tissue.  Elderberry extract can reduce sinus congestion and swelling of the nasal passages.  This is a helpful herb for those who suffer from recurrent sinus infections, and those for whom every cold turns into a prolonged, annoying, unrelenting upper respiratory infection.  it’s one of my all time favourite herbs for the generally run down individual (adult or child) who get cold after cold, suffer from chronic runny noses,  and may even have colds turn to bronchitis. And ALLERGIES! Think about this berry for seasonal allergies.  If your allergies begin in March, consider starting to consume this herb regularly at least six weeks prior.  Combined with nettle, the two herbs together can significantly reduce – or in some cases I’ve seen even eliminate – seasonal allergies.

I use elderberry extracts for the treatment and prevention of ear infections (taken orally, not administered in the ear) and herpes. I use it to support children’s immune systems at the onset of chicken pox and respiratory illness.  While I haven’t used it for eye health in my clinic, elderberry is reputed to strengthen the eyes.  This seems logical given how the berries are rich in flavonoids.

Flavonoids act as anti-inflammatories, reducing swelling, pain, and general discomfort.  Flavonoids also tighten tone, and strengthen blood vessels and capillaries.   The beauty of elderberry is that they are not an immune stimulant, it’s a modulator, which make this plant such a gem for those with auto-immune diseases (Lupus, HIV, Rheumatoid Arthritis etc) as these individuals cannot take immune stimulants.

Elderberries can be used as teas, tincture, elixir, in cough syrup, and as an oxymel (see recipe below).  An oxymel is a mixture  of herbs soaked in a combination of honey and vinegar. This is a great alternative for adults or children who want to avoid alcohol.  The added benefit of preparing an oxymel is it makes for a great method of delivery for those who forget to take tinctures or who find teas to much a hassle – just pour the oxymel all over everything you eat! It’s delicious, easy to assemble, and relatively inexpensive to make.  If you want to try your hand at making a cough syrup, check out my recipe here.

ELDERBERRY OXYMEL
Preparation time: Less than five minutes

Ingredients:

Elderberries
Honey
apple cider vinegar

Equipment:
1 litre or 1 pint canning jar with a lid
measuring cup
spoon
label
wax paper to line the lid of the jar

Instructions:

Place one cup of elderberries into your jar.  Mix 2 cups of vinegar to 1 cup of honey until well combined.  Pour over the elderberries.  Mix, and taste it. If it tastes too sour for your liking then add more honey by the half cup. Some people even prefer equal parts honey to vinegar. I like sour things and err on the conservative side of sweets, so I tend to add less honey. I encourage you to tweak the ratio to your personal preference.
Place the piece of wax paper over the opening of the jar to avoid contact between the metal ring of the canning jar and the vinegar (otherwise it’ll rust). Fasten the lid.  Shake vigorously.  Label. Shake daily.  The oxymel is ready to use within 10 days though some like to let it macerate for a full month.  When it is finished, strain, bottle, label, and enjoy.  Oxymels do not need to be refrigerated although you can store it in the fridge for a longer life.  Either way, ideally consume within one year.

DOSAGE: For prevention and health maintenance adults take 2-4 TBSP daily and children take 2-4 TSP daily.  At the first onset of illness, or during illness, adults take 2TBSP every two hours, and children over 4 take 2TSP every two hours until relief.  Always consider consulting with a qualified practitioner if you are unsure of safety or dosage.  If in doubt, reach out.

For a wonderfully comprehensive essay on Elder medicine, read this article written by Rosalee de la Foret of Methow Valley herbs.
Enjoy the gift of this amazing tree – and please feel free to share what you do with elderberries in the comments below.

Seraphina

23 Comments

  1. Nico on September 11, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    I am wondering can I use fresh elderberries for this oxymel recipe? If so, should I put 2 cups of them??

    • Seraphina Capranos on September 12, 2017 at 2:42 pm

      Hi Nico,

      Because vinegar has such a high water content, and so do fresh berries, I personally prefer to “exhaust” the fresh berries for at least a few days….that means let them wilt or dry out a bit to lose some water….. Or, you go ahead and use the fresh berries, but then be sure to strain them out after 3 weeks. This is prevent excess water content in your final product, which could result in it going off.
      Good luck!

  2. katie ryan on August 28, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    For the oxymel, do you cook your berries first or add then raw to the Honey and vinegar?

    • Seraphina Capranos on September 12, 2017 at 2:43 pm

      Hi Katie!

      I never cook the berries. I just add them raw to the honey and vinegar! Have fun!

  3. moss on November 3, 2015 at 8:35 am

    I LOVE this article, and your story of the elder in your grandparents’ yard! In the winter, when everyone around me is sick, I keep a crockpot on 24/7 with elderberry tea going. I like to add fennel, cardamom and cinnamon sticks to this brew. It gets thick & purple and tastes delicious with a good dollop of honey. I drink 3-4 cups/day of this when I feel vulnerable to cold & flu. Additionally, I keep a batch of syrup on hand and take it along with me if I’m traveling – just in case I feel a cold coming on and need it right away!

    • Heather Biver on December 28, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks Seraphina for sharing your wonderful tips. I make a “happy tea” with elderberries..mixed with peppermint leaves, blackberry leaves and a bit of rooibos. I had it in Luxembourg initially. Happy healthy holidays to all. Heather

      • Seraphina Capranos on December 28, 2015 at 8:39 pm

        Oh that’s a great combination! Thanks for sharing Heather, that sounds amazing.

  4. Heather on December 25, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    I make a “happy tea”, recipe from Europe, that includes elderberries and it is delicious. Now we can have a cough remedy too. Many thanks Seraphina for sharing.

    • admin on December 26, 2014 at 8:56 am

      Heather, that sounds wonderful! I bet the happy tea is delicious. Yummmm.

  5. Debbie Burton on December 17, 2014 at 11:58 am

    This looks so beautiful! I am about to make it now, and am wondering if the Elderberries should be rinsed first? I purchased my dried berries at Natureworks.
    I’m looking forward to tasting this…already so fragrant just the vinegar and honey, side by side with the dried berries! Thanks Seraphina!

    • admin on December 17, 2014 at 12:35 pm

      No, I don’t think the berries need to be rinsed, unless they look dusty or you have an instinct to do so. Have fun with it! Thanks Debbie!

  6. Mila on December 15, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Great idea! Thank you! I shall brew tea and eat spicy stir fry!

  7. sylvie on December 14, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    thanks Seraphina!!

  8. Mila on December 14, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I have a question about the pulp that is left behind after straining. I’ve made the Fire Cider and now the Elderberry Oxymel. I wish to recycle the pulp somehow. Can I reuse the pulp for another infusion? (I assume not because the herbs have given all, but my fire cider pulp still smells very strong.)
    Thank you!

    • admin on December 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      Hi Mila,

      I use fire cider pulp by adding it to sauerkraut, or mixing into a stir fry so it doesn’t go to waste. THe elderberry pulp, I do use a second time by adding it to a tea, or simmer it long and deep for a thick decoction, add a touch of honey, and voila!

  9. Sylvie Cazabon on December 12, 2014 at 9:02 am

    thanks for taking the time to write these blog posts Sersphina! You give me the inspiration I need to keep on track and stay in tune with nature and it’s amazing medicines!! What a gift!! I always look forward to reading them.

    • admin on December 12, 2014 at 9:33 am

      Thank YOU Sylvie! And I appreciate you taking the time to read them! I’m so glad you find them helpful. Blessings to you!

  10. Sylvie Cazabon on December 12, 2014 at 8:51 am

    I will be making it too!!! Haven’t tried an oxymel yet! I have a question about the toxicity of seeds. I’ve read that the berries need to be heated to get rid of the toxicity in the seeds and I’m wondering if drying them does the same?

    • admin on December 12, 2014 at 9:38 am

      No, drying them doesn’t eliminate the toxicity. The toxicity of the seeds is relevant only if processed through the digestive system (eaten) whether dried or fresh. The toxicity is not fatal, though it will give someone a bad stomach ache and cause vomiting. I’ve eaten them raw, and they definitely cause stomach aches!

  11. Barbra Edwards on December 11, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    A perfect recipe I will make this weekend. It’s simplicity appeals this busy time of year. Thank you Seraphina!

    • admin on December 11, 2014 at 5:59 pm

      Great Barbra! Let me know how it turns out!

  12. Leslie Andrews on December 11, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Thank you Seraphina I have to make this and will. Leslie

    • admin on December 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      Awesome Leslie! Enjoy it!

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