Here in my neck of the woods, Winter is beginning to make its presence felt. Scarves, beanies, and Ugg boots are coming out of the closet again, hipsters are adorned with fuller beards, and small mobs of onesie-clad teenage girls and the odd snuggie-clad (that was soooooo last year) misfit invade late night supermarkets to stock up on marshmallows and various other blubberfying hibernation fuel. For many people, however, Winter also invokes ‘flu season and the obligatory revenue-raising ‘flu shot.
And then there are the fringe dwellers, the ones who dare to dress in hemp fleece, and the ones who prefer to eat seasonally, the ones who take stock of the seasonal shift in their local plant communities, and dare to dance to that hypnotic, subtle beat that reverberates beneath us all. The ones who know the ancient ways. Perhaps I am such a one as these.
As the temperature wanes and transitions from the heat of Summer through to that first hint of real chill in the air around the Autumn equinox, something magical happens. Splashes of cream chantilly lace give way to tiny green pin heads that, with the coming weeks, swell into umbrella clusters of aubergine orbs that speak of secrets and wonders. These are the Elderberries. The original ‘flu shot, and still the best.
The Elder (Sambucus spp. – Sambucus nigra is the variety mostly used in commerce), is a shrub that has a rich tradition of use as well as a rich folk lore associated with it, particularly in Europe, but also in North America. The flowers, leaves, and berries are all used in healing and each possess individual and collective actions. For this post, however, I would particularly like to concentrate on the berries, as they are most pertinent to the effects of the season in which they appear (although the dried flowers have also traditionally been used in specific combination with yarrow, and peppermint to remedy a flu with fever.) The berries, like many other berry species – especially blueberries (note the botanical moniker of blueberries and bilberries; Vaccininum spp.) are of tremendous use as a preventative against the Winter woes.
Elder berries are rich in bioflavonoids such as rutin and quercitin, and rich in anthocyanins (the powerful anti-oxidant that is a constituent in all edible dark pigmented berries). Elder berries are a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and the B vitamins. Studies have found that extracts of Elder berries possess anti-viral action, and are effective against Influenza viruses. The berries taste a little sour with a hint of sweetness.
My kids and I have often found great joy in harvesting, decocting, and preparing the fresh berries to make Elderberry Elixir as our particular insurance against the ‘flu (also accompanied by sensible dietary practices). However, we have now moved far away from that particular community of Elder, and we haven’t as yet found a new, wild (or domesticated) community around our new home. Fortunately, the dried berries also make a great Elixir, and with a drop or two of Elder spagyric (an alchemically prepared tincture), it’s potency can be lifted through the roof.
For an all-round immune boosting effect, I like to combine the Elderberries with Astragalus and Echinacea root (also immune boosting), Ashwagandha or Eleuthro for their adaptogenic properties, and Ginger and Cinnamon for their warming properties. Liquorice root may be added if there is a history of asthma, but not if there is a history of high blood pressure. More often than not, people will come down with the ‘flu when they are run down and burnt out from the stress of work, or simply, every day living, so it’s important to address our ability to cope with stress as well. You can buy all of the above listed herbs individually and make a strong decoction*, then let cool and strain, and stir in some raw honey and some brandy to preserve it. I usually take 1 teaspoon of the elixir 3x/day as a preventative. Or you can drink one cup of decoction 1-2x/day.
[* a typical decoction is made by adding a measure of roots, seeds, bark, or twigs, to four measures of water (eg: 1/2 cup herb to 2 cups water), slowly bring to the boil and then reduce to simmer for 15-30 minutes.]
Stay tuned for my new range of Tealixirs which will include a pre-prepared blend of this Immune booster so you can make your own elixirs, as well as a video introducing the new range and how to craft these amazing elixirs. In the meantime, if you would like to venture out into the wild on your own, arm yourself with a good field guide (I like Markus Rothkranz’s book on Free Wild Food and Medicine) and introduce yourself to the Elder. Otherwise feel free to source fresh plants and dried herbs from the following suppliers (I have no affiliation with these companies by the way, I shop with them myself and just think they’re awesome);