Tonight I canned up my first (and possibly last, depending on how busy the coming weeks are) jars of Elderberry syrup for the season. It's a simple process and basically involves boiling the berries in water a few hours or longer depending on your patience, straining, then boiling them down with your sweet preservative of choice- I used organic cane sugar and maple syrup. Last year I threw in a few cloves too before straining for added flavor and soothing ability. Of course there are a million recipes online as well as a few comercially available syrups if you're not game to make your own or don't have Elder trees near where you live. A word to the wise: don't eat raw elderberries- in high doses they can be toxic, but cooking removes this risk. I do not perform this yearly ritual simply so I can have delicious syrup on my pancakes- there are other berries for that. Elderberry, also known as Sambucus (Sam byook cuss) canadensis (or nigra if you're in Europe) is a mama's best friend in the coming month's of cold and flu season and making Fall syrup is a tradition in many parts of the world.
Elderberry is native to Europe but was an early transplant to the New World. It is a small tree which can grow to 30 feet and has clusters of off-white and incredibly fragrant flowers in the late spring which develop into tiny dark blue/black berries in the late summer. It likes areas with dense vegetation, but likes to be on the edge of clearings. Once you know what it looks like, it's easy to spot. I commonly find it along roads in the Portland area and backwoods of Oregon. Historically it has been used for swelling, inflammation, pain relief, to increase urine, and as an agent to generate sweating as well as break up mucus and aid in its expulsion. It is Elderberry's strong immune enhancing properties are most useful during cold and flu season and these same properties have been the focus of many studies in the last decade. It is mainly the berries (although the flowers contain some immune enhancing properties as well) which are most commonly used medicinally. They contain molecules called flavonoids which are found in many fruits and which possess strong antioxidant and immune stimulating properties.
Okay, enough of the science jabber. We all know how fun it is to have a sick toddler, or much worse- a sick husband, who refuses to take anything that tastes "icky." Wouldn't it be nice to be able to offer a soothing syrup, stirred into some warm tea, that also had strong bug fighting abilities? This, my friend is why I make Elderberry syrup annually. I heard a while back that the Native Americans called the Willamette Valley "the valley of winter sickness." I haven't taken the time to validate it, but it seems like a fitting title, historical or not. In this damp climate it's no wonder that winter brings with it a whole host of nasty bugs which love to dive into the respiratory mucosa and thrive, making us sick and miserable. One of the worst bugs that we all love to hate is influenza, aka THE FLU. What can you do when you get the flu? Usual prescription that we have all been given is bedrest, fluids, bland diet, yada yada yada the virus will take it's course and you just have to wait it out. Or if it's severe enough you might get one of the anti-flu pharma drugs which don't have super impressive track records although they are definitely better than nothing in bad situations. Some of the most discussed (at least in my little bubble here) studies with Elderberry are dealing with these very nasties- Influenza B, H1N1, avian flu, etc. and the good news is that most of the studies support the traditional use of Elderberry extract in treating influenza, Not only does the literature show that those given elderberry end up with a stronger immune response against the virus (it amps up your body's guns) it also binds to the viral particles themselves and can prevent them from infecting new cells (remember biology and the whole virus invading the cell, then bursting out droves of new viruses to go infect even more cells).
This is good stuff! Many of the studies also showed a significant decrease in the time it took to recover. In one Influenza B outbreak in Panama the majority of patients given Elderberry showed significant improvement in their symptoms in 2 days versus the 6 days it took for those in the control group to reach the same level. There was also a reported decreased need of rescue inhalers among participants given Elderberry. Combine the action on the molecular level with Elderberry's other properties of helping to break up mucus and getting it out and you have one mean cold and flu fighting machine. Not only has Elderberry shown promise with influenza, but other research suggests that it might be helpful in treating giardia, bacterial sinusitis, herpes, and gingivitis. Who knew this little innocent looking berry could pack such a powerful punch?
Elderberry has also traditionally been used to make wine and it's on my bucket list to do this someday, but for now I am happy making my syrup. Come the first sniffle this fall you bet my cup of tea with have a spoonful or two stirred in. I have also heard rumor that you can batter and deep fry the flower clusters. I'm not sure how I feel about that idea...... anyone ever try it?