I was chatting with a friend recently and she mentioned that she had just made elder berry syrup. It reminded me that it is a great whole food nutritional supplement to teach others about. It is pretty easy to make, and most everyone enjoys the taste of a syrup over an icky medicine taste, especially children. Elder berry works great to combat fever, colds and flu – and the season is upon us.
Elder berries come from the European Elder plant. The plant leaves and branches are actually pretty poisonous, so use caution when obtaining your berries. Sometimes you will see very small stems attached to the dried berries, but they are safe to use, so do not worry about those. If you are using fresh berries, or drying them yourself, just make sure you do not use the leaves or branches.
My favorite source for herbs is Mountain Rose Herbs. They have the strictest regulations for their practices and procedures. They only allow organic or wild-crafted herbs in their facility. It is always my first choice in herbs. They also have really great prices, and their herbs are always extremely fresh. I only go elsewhere if they are out of what I need, which does happen sometimes.
The Effectiveness of Elderberries on Colds and Flu
Elder berries have been tested extensively and have been proven to kill eight strains of influenza. This is great news in light of all the recent media coverage of the “flu epidemic” and the “get your flu shot” warnings that seem to be abundant. The flu shot is only effective against specific strains that are supposed to be more common in the coming season, which is just an educated guess. Moreover, the use of elder berry has shown to effectively combat the flu once you already have it, but you can also take it as a preventative measure so that you never even get it.
You can brew up elder berry as a tea, but elder berries are a tad bit on the bitter side. You can load your tea up with honey and get it down, but if you have children and want your children to benefit it is pretty hard to get them to drink as much as they would need for it to be preventative in nature.
What is an Elder Berry Infusion?
An infusion is a very strongly brewed tea. An infusion is truly medicinal because it is much more concentrate than a tea. To make elder berry syrup you first need to make an infusion, and then a decoction. When you reduce the infusion by half by very slow evaporation it is called a decoction.
This is not as difficult or as confusing as it sounds.
The way I learned to make infusions, decoctions and syrups is from Susan Weed’s book Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. I bought this book when I was pregnant with my first child, and it is what I have used as a guide in making herbal-everything – ever since.
So the way that I make infusions is because of what I learned in this book. Some people call an infusion different than what I call it. Some people call a decoction different than what I do. This is just how I learned, and what I have been doing for the past 10 years.
Materials to make elder berry infusion:
- glass pint jar, with lid
- heaping 1/3 C (or about 5T) dried elder berries (buy elder berries here)
- 2 C water, pot for boiling
How to Make Elder Berry Infusion
1. Place your elder berries in a very clean jar. The specific amount is 1 oz – I’ve measured this out, and it is a heaping 1/3 C or about 5T. Boil 2 C of water.
2. Boil the water. Remove the water from the stove, and when it just stops boiling, pour over the elder berries slowly. I like to have my jar on top of a kitchen towel to catch spills (it is hot, and if it splashes it hurts). Make sure that your water comes to the very top of the jar. I like to fill it up so much that a tiny bit does spill out onto the towel when I screw the lid on. The more filled the jar is the more medicinal the end product will be because there is no air space for the essences, oils, vitamins and minerals to move up and out of. So fill the jar to the tippy top.
3. Screw your lid on and let set for 30 minutes – set a timer. Different parts of different herbs need different infusion times. Berries are fragile and they do not need as long. If you infuse some plants too long then you render them less than effective – sometimes it ruins the end product. Berries and seeds should never infuse for longer than 30 minutes.
4. After it has set for 30 minutes you will need to strain. I use the same pot and cheesecloth. Place the cheesecloth over the pot and pour out your infusion. Elder berries have been used as a dye for hundreds of years, probably thousands. It stains, so pour slowly. Squeeze the cheesecloth to get all the water out of the re-hydrated berries, and onto our decoction.
How to Decoct Your Elderberry Infusion
This part is simple too. You are now going to reduce the infusion by half. It makes it more potent, and you have to take less of it…great for kids, especially since we’re turning it into a syrup. Susan Weed talks about using a pan with measuring lines on it, or drawing lines yourself, or even using measuring cups. I think that all sounds complicated. So this is what I’ve always done: I take a wooden skewer used for making kebabs. I put it in the middle of the pan, and take it out. The stick is stained slightly. I take a pencil and mark the top of the stain-line, and then I put a line at halfway down and then I measure as the liquid decocts by putting the skewer back in the pot. I always have these kebab sticks, I don’t know why. If you don’t have them, then use a toothpick.
To decoct: Your liquid is still pretty hot since you only infused for 30 minutes…it will reach boiling quickly – but we do not want it to boil. You could Google search how to make elder berry syrup, and find a million different ways – one of those ways probably boils the liquid down. I did not learn that way, and this is the way I do it because I think that steaming it, while a lengthier process, is gentler on the infusion.
Turn your burner on medium. You need to stand right at the stove and watch, watch, watch. Once you see steam rising up, turn your heat down to low. I never have to turn it down to my lowest setting, but I have to turn it down pretty low. My current burner goes from 1-10. When I decoct and set it to low, I put it down to 2. So pretty low.
You do not actually want it to boil, and it seems like it’ll never decoct, but it does! If you get it down low enough you can even walk away and not have to worry about it boiling. So once it begins to steam, turn it down right away. It’ll continue to steam, but it won’t be as much. Use your skewer stick and test every so often. It takes me about an hour to decoct 2C of liquid down to 1C. Once your skewer line is at the halfway mark it is time to make your syrup.
How to Make Elder Berry Syrup
You can use honey or sugar. I usually use honey. If I have small babies then I use sugar. My preference is for raw, local honey. Honey is sweeter that sugar, and you won’t use as much.
For the 8 ounces of elder berry decoction you have left you will use 4T of honey or 8 ounces of sugar, by weight (this is about 1 C and 1/8C).
Add in your sweetener of choice, stir, and bring the liquid to a boil. As soon as it boils you can turn the heat off and pour it into an 8 ounce jelly type canning jar. If I make a bigger batch, then I add 1T of vodka per 8 ounces of syrup. This adds to the shelf life.
I have 5 children so in the winter this amount does not last long, but other times during warmer seasons I want to be sure that it does not ferment while setting in the refrigerator for a few months.
Recap of How to Make Elder Berry Syrup
- Start with one pint of elderberry infusion.
- Reduce (decoct) by half, to 8 ounces.
- Add equal amount of sugar, by weight, unless using honey and then use half.
- Add a tablespoon of liquor (per 8 ounces) to stabilize the syrup and add shelf life.
- Keep the syrup in the refrigerator, regardless of whether or not you added alcohol.
- Shelf life in the refrigerator is 3-6 months. Ours never lasts that long. The kids like it and are willing to take it regularly.
Elder Berry Syrup Dosage
I (kinda, sorta) use Susan Weed’s dosing instructions. I have used more and less depending on the situation. She suggests the following for syrup dosing:
- Adults, 100-150 pounds – 1 tsp, up to 8 times a day
- Children, 60-100 pounds – 1/2 tsp, up to 8 times a day
- Children under 60 pounds – 1/4 tsp, up to 8 times a day
That said, I regularly give all my children 1 tsp of elderberry syrup once a day for preventative measures through the winter months. If we have been exposed, then I give it to them 3 times a day for 10 days. If they become sick with a cold or flu then I do use Susan Weed’s recommended dosage as above.
You can make a wide range of syrups for medicinal purposes. I regularly make a cough syrup with comfrey root and wild cherry bark and honey as the sweetener. A few of my children are prone to very bad coughs when they catch colds, and it helps so much.
Another syrup I like to keep stocked is valerian root, because it has an amazing calmative effect, and helps with insomnia, nervousness, headaches, or just general aches and pains during illness.
You could even make a catnip syrup if you have a child known for especially high fevers, but do not want to use traditional pharmaceuticals.
You can combine herbs to make syrups but generally you want to stick to two or three at the most, otherwise the overall effectiveness of each herb will not be as strong.
I love being able to use homemade, healthy, alternative choices for medicine. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be thy food.” I agree.
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