Here in Southern Indiana it is elderberry harvest time. The best place I’ve found to gather them so far is on a little-traveled road on the way to the Amish farm I go to every week. The bushes are set back from the road a bit, which is perfect--they don’t get all the car exhaust fumes. The last two Saturdays I’ve stopped on our way back from Lydia’s and Joaz’s place and harvested the ripe berries. These bushes are prolific. Even so, it is always necessary to leave a goodly portion of berries on the bush. You want the bush to survive and thrive. Say thank you while you harvest--expressing your gratitude for this wonderful food and medicine is good for your soul.
Elderberries are reported to be an excellent agent to use for flu and colds. There is even talk that elderberries could be used to treat bird flu, the dreaded H5N1 virus, and tinctures containing elderberries and other immune-boosting herbs are being marketed. I know from personal use that elderberry tincture is effective in lessening the effects of the flu, for I’ve used Sambucol for years. This is not necessarily an endorsement for the stuff, by the way. If you can find elder bushes around you, then pick your own berries. It’ll save you scads of money and making the syrup and tinctures is easy, as you will see. However, sambucol has worked for me when I’ve had touches of the flu in the past, so I’ve provided the commercial link.
Picking the berries is easy, the real labor comes later. Just take your handy clipper tool with you as you clamber around the bushes and clip off the whole umbrel. (See the pix in the link in the first paragraph. The umbrella-looking cluster of berries is the umbrel.) I have filled up 4 to 5 bags of the berry clusters so far, and that’s given me a lot of berries. The honest-to-goodness work comes when you get the berries home. There are two ways of removing the stubborn little berries from their umbrels. The first is to use a comb or a fork and patiently work the berries off of the stems. This will take the rest of your life, or at least a loooong time, but it will give you nice berries without stems. This is what you want to do if you’re making something that will have the berries in it--say a sauce for ice cream or elderberry pie.
The other way is to freeze the berries overnight, and then remove the frozen berries the next day. I picked this tip from a video by HerbMentor. Watch the video--it’ll tell you what you need to know. Freezing the berries does make it less time-consuming to pick the berries off the stem, but it is not as easy as the man says. The frozen berries do not easily come off the stems, but if you are careful, you can remove them without getting too many stems in with the berries. Gently use your hand and fingers to roll the berries off their stems. I then remove whatever stems got in the mix by hand. This also gives a fairly clean bunch of berries.
Wash the berries. To make the syrup, use 1 cup berries to 3 cups water. Put them in a pot and heat gently on the stove. Don’t boil--you don’t want to kill the active antiviral stuff, just simmer gently for 45 minutes or so. Then mash the berries as much as you can to get as much juice out of them as possible. Strain the juice through a jelly bag (recommended) or do what I do, use cheesecloth and a sieve. I pour the berries and juice through the cheesecloth and then squeeze the cheesecloth full of berries with my hands. Once you have the juice, add 1 cup honey (or 1 cup sugar--I used honey) as it is back warming on the stove. Bottle it in mason jars or whatever jars or bottles you have handy. I add a bit of alcohol to help preserve the syrup, which I then label and date, and keep in the fridge.
Making an elderberry tincture is the easiest thing: just fill a sterilized mason jar with berries and pour vodka or brandy over to cover the berries. Cap the jar and put it in a cool, dark place for a month. Shake the jar daily or whenever you remember. After the month is up, strain the berries out and bottle the tincture in little amber colored glass jars with eyedroppers (if you can get your hands on some). Amber jars keep out the light, which can deteriorate the tincture over time. I’ve got 2 quarts of tincture already. I’ll make more as soon as I get more vodka.
I’ve just made another batch of syrup, but this time, I added an equal ratio of sugar to berries. Four cups berries, 4 cups sugar. This should enable me to keep the syrup without refrigeration. I also added vodka as a preservative, 4 tablespoons to the quart. This stuff is sweet--much sweeter than I like, but we’ll use it as a medicine, or give it to friends here who get flu symptoms.
For the most part, my husband and I do not get colds or flu. At the first sign of anything like a cold or flu, we immediately eat cloves of garlic and take 5 grams or so of vitamin C and a Goldenseal and Echinacea combination. And I usually make chicken broth loaded with garlic. I stop eating anything but the soup. That usually does it for either of us. In the winter, we take a clove of garlic a day each (or do when I remember). I use a garlic press for Michael, but I just chew it and swallow with water. It is certainly pungent, enough to take your breath away. The allicin in the garlic is what you want, and it is the allicin that makes the rich garlic smell and taste. Garlic is great stuff--I don’t think I could cook without onions and garlic.
Last year I noticed that lots of valley folks got the flu and had it for a long time. I always tell them to eat garlic, but a lot of times, it is all the other crap that people eat and drink that causes the problems and wreaks havoc with the immune system. (Have you ever noticed that havoc is the only thing wreaked? If you can think of anything else that gets wreaked, let me know….) Junk food, which, to me, is anything processed, soft drinks, too much sugar and white flour foods. All are bad for you and slowly destroy your health. Ah, but this is a separate topic altogether. Suffice it to say that I hope to have enough elderberry syrup and tincture to dose the whole valley come flu time. Maybe it will even work for H5N1--we’ll see. In the meantime, good luck with your elderberries!