Finding Elderberries in the Mountains
Around this time last year, the girls and I were on a stroll and happened upon an elderberry bush. I was shocked. I never expected to find elderberries in the mountains of Colorado! I picked a ripe cluster of the berries and brought them home and did a bunch of research to make sure that I was right in my herb identification. I was! We went out later that week and harvested as many berries as we could find and made 2 large bottles of tincture from that one bush. We felt like such pioneers. Well, imagine my surprise when we found over 10 elderberry bushes this year on our foraging adventures! Thanks to Mark’s keen elderberry spotting. We decided to make as much tincture as we could. Little did we know what that was going to entail. Before detailing our little venture into herbal remedies though, here are some important rules of elderberry use.
Safety Rules of Elderberry Harvesting and Use
- You can ingest the flowers of the elderberry bush- some people put them in champagne for a light springy flavor. Here is what the elder flowers look like
- Do not ingest unripe berries. They contain a mild cyanide which can cause nausea and vomiting etc.
- When using ripe elderberries, use them when they are purple and the stem has turned reddish/pink.
The Health Benefits of Elderberry
When I was a kid, my aunt used to make elderberry tincture and send it to us so I was somewhat familiar with it. I knew it was good for fighting off the flu or common cold because the second I complained of a stuffy nose or headache, out came the elderberry tincture. What I didn’t realize is that it can also improve heart health, lower cholesterol, lessen asthma, help with diabetes, and improve vision. It is also helpful in reducing inflammation in the bladder and urinary tract. Elderberry juice was used as a treatment in Panama during a flu epidemic in 1995 and in Israel, at Hadassah’s Oncology Lab, it was determined that the anthocyanins in elderberry enhance immune function greatly. In fact, it does such a great job that they are now treating AIDS and Cancer patients with elderberry!!! So that’s the scientific side of things. On to the making of the tincture. Be prepared to get dirty and have some fun!
Making Elderberry Tincture and Syrup
1.) Harvesting We spent about 30 minutes picking the ripe berries, and filled an entire reusable grocery bag. Hooray! You can also buy dry berries from herb stores like this one.
2.) Separating Guess how long it took us to separate those berries? Oh….about 5 hours.
Yep, talk about labor intensive! Oh well, its a labor of love, right? Anyway, to take the berries off of the umbrels, you simply have to use your finger tips and lightly pluck the berries off making sure to not take any stem along. If the berries are super ripe you can use a fork or wide tooth comb and run it downward along the stem. Some people freeze the berries while still on the umbrel and separate afterwards, but I havent tried that method yet.
3.) Recipe and Process There are a few different ideas on how to properly make tincture. Some people use only berries and alcohol. We decided to add a few extra ingredients. One thing is certain though- you have to use alcohol that is 80 proof or higher in order to extract the medicinal properties and preserve the berries. We used 90 proof rum for some of the jars and 90 proof whiskey for others. Some people say that vodka is the only proper alcohol to use when making tincture. But, I like to live on the edge so we didn’t use vodka. Anyway, here are the steps we took.
- Separate and wash the berries
- Mash them lightly
- We added raw honey to the berries (about 1/4 cup of honey per 1 cup of elderberries) just because we wanted to make it a bit more palatable.
- Fill each jar about halfway with the berry/honey mixture
- Add alcohol to the berries until the jar is nearly full (ends up being about a 50-50 mix).
- (Optional) Add a couple of cinnamon sticks, 3 or 4 cloves, 1 tablespoon dried echinacea, and 2 teaspoons dried lavender to each jar. We added these things because we had them on hand, and because they all have specific medicinal qualities that are also helpful in fighting illness and boosting the immune system.
- Seal the jar and shake the mixture until well combined.
- Store in a dark dry place
- Shake lightly every couple of days
- The tincture will be ready after 2-3 weeks.
Suggested Use: You will want to strain the tincture before consuming it. You can do so 1 serving at a time or strain the entire content into a new jar and discard of the berries entirely. A daily serving (1 tablespoon) of tincture is great for keeping your immune system up and running. You can take it 3 times per day when you feel the first signs of flu or cold coming on. For kids, I would suggest making elderberry syrup since its more palatable and kids love it!