Elder: Herb of the Year 2013

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A Valuable Flu-Fighting Ally for Your Fall and Winter Medicine Chest

Compounts in elderberry can bind to viruses, effectively stopping the viruses before they can spread.

“Elder has been revered since antiquity as a virtual medicine chest. Prominent in folklore, its virtues are used in numerous ways: to protect and heal, create tasty beverages and foods, and even entertain.” (International Herb Association)

Elder offers us much as a green medicinal ally. Whether we  use the flowers or berries of this venerable plant, elder medicine is a cherished healer and a powerful addition to the winter medicine chest.

Here in Ontario we are fortunate to have elder trees growing throughout the region. In an article entitled “Reflections of a Former Elderberry Abuser” which appears in the book Elder: Herb of the Year 2013, agricultural researcher Charles E. Voigt writes:

“While there are a number of elderberry species native to the U.S. and Canada, it is Sambucus canadensis that is most common in the central and eastern parts. In fact, this one is often considered a woody weed in fencerows, along ditches, and around farmsteads. In many instan-ces, only the local birds take notice of this shrub.”(1)

Although considered a weed tree by many, elder has many medicinal properties which can be accessed by preparing your own concoctions, or buying formulas at the health food store.

Whether they are called cordials, tonics, or elixirs, all are packed with elderberry’s healing power.

Nourishing Tonic

Elderberries contain a significant amount of flavo-noids called anthocyanins, the antioxidants found in dark purple, blue and black fruits.  As well, they offer more vitamin C than oranges, and are a good source of vitamin A, B (niacin and thiamine), calcium, iron, and protein.

It is thought that elderberry medicine influences the immune system to encourage more appropriate immune responses. These days, we often hear of adults and children with a long list of allergies. There are so many more ‘irritants’ in our daily lives: fast foods, excessive chemicals in our homes, noise and air pollution, electro-magnetic radiation (EMR) from the ever-present WiFi and cellular towers. With our immune systems so compromised, any herbs that can help us get back ‘on track’ are beneficial and worthy of our attention.

Aggressive ‘Flu Fighter

The most common use of elderberry medicine is in the treatment of influenza. With regular consumption of this herb, colds and ‘flus seem to move more quickly through the body. At the same time, elderberry supports the body’s natural fever responses, strengthens and tones mucous membranes, and provides supportive energy.

In clinical trials, Israeli researcher and virologist, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, PhD, of Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, found that elderberry extract can disarm the enzyme used by viruses to penetrate healthy cells in the lining of the nose and throat. She also found that, if taken before infection, the extract prevents infection; if taken after infection, it prevents the spread of the virus throughout the rest of the respiratory tract and body. Her clinical trials revealed that 20% of participants experienced significant improvement within 24 hours; 70% experienced improvement within 48 hours; 90% were symptom-free within 3 days. In contrast, participants taking the placebo needed 6 days to recover. (2)

This study, and many more like it, indicate that there are compounds in elderberry which bind to viruses before they can penetrate the walls of cells, effectively stopping the viruses before they can spread!

Year Round Multi-Tasker

I have made many fruity and delicious concoctions with elderberries over the years. Whether they are called cordials, tonics, liqueurs or elixirs, all are packed with elderberry’s healing powers. Choose a basic herbal syrup or a blend of elderberry and additional herbs and spices.

Herbal syrups are a terrific way to enjoy the goodness of herbs throughout the year, as a sore throat soother or as a tasty addition to a hot tea or evening ‘toddy’. In the pure fun department: herbal syrups add a special flavour to pancakes, waffles or hot cereals, and are delicious served over yogurt, ice cream or other desserts.

In warm weather I like to make an energizing drink by adding herbal syrups to sparkling water or lemonade with ice. Elderberry syrup boasts a gorgeous dark purple colour and is very refreshing on a hot summer’s day.

Healthy Sweeteners – Most herbal syrup recipes contain sugar, but I prefer to use honey, as it is anti-bacterial and possesses healing properties. For additional flavours, any combination of aromatics can be added partway through the ‘simmering step’ in the recipe below. Options include cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger root, lemon or orange peel, nutmeg, allspice. (Caution: Children under one year old should not drink syrups made with honey.)


  • 1 cup fresh elderberries or ½ cup dried elderberries
  • 2 cups pure water
  • 1 cup honey (raw, local preferred)

1) Place the berries and water in a non-aluminum pot. Gently bring the mixture to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2) Use a potato masher to gently coax as much juice from the berries as possible. If you have a ‘hand-held’ (immersion) blender, pulse it 5-6 times to extract juice from the berries. It’s important to avoid breaking up the seeds, which can add a bitter quality to the juice, so make this a brief ‘mash’ or ‘pulse’.

3) Strain the liquid through a fine sieve into a glass measuring cup, and allow it to cool down from ‘hot’ to ‘warm’.

4) While the juice is still quite warm, add the honey and stir well. It’s better to add the honey to warm (vs cold) juice, as heating it too much will reduce its healing power.

5) Pour into a bottle or jar and label. Store the syrup in the fridge and use within 2 to 3 months.

Repeat the Dosage

Research indicates that, after a virus enters a cell in our body, it replicates every 20 minutes or so. This is why herbalists recommend taking herbal remedies every 10 to 15 minutes in the acute phase of an infection. Whether it’s for a sore throat, body ache, earache, etc., take herbal remedies frequently, preferably on an empty stomach, especially at the beginning of an ‘attack’. And for best results, continue taking the remedy for two to three days after all symptoms have cleared.

Elderberry syrup is an effective remedy and a valuable addition to your winter herbal medicine chest. Here’s hoping we all enjoy a healthy ‘sniffle-free’ winter season!


(1) The book, Elder (Sambucus): Herb of the Year 2013, compiled by Karen O’Brien, is available through the International Herb Association website. For more information visit: https://www.iherb.org

(2) Professor Zichria Zakay-Rones, Noemi Varsano, Moshe Zlotnik, Orly Manor, Liora Regev, Miriam Schlesinger, and Madeleine Mumcuoglu. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Winter 1995, 1(4): 361-369. doi:10.1089/acm.1995.1.361. Published in Volume: 1 Issue 4: August. “Inhibition of Several Strains of Influenza Virus in Vitro and Reduction of Symptoms by an Elderberry Extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an Outbreak of Influenza B Panama”.

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