By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America
When I was 8 years old my mother had me join a pre-Girl Scout group in the hopes that I would follow in my big sister’s footsteps and become a full-fledged Girl Scout. My mother was a wonderful troop leader and she found amazing things for us to do and wonderful places to go. Among them was her best friend’s horse farm. I never wanted to leave.
When it became time to become a Girl Scout, Mom wasn’t surprised when I refused. Laughingly she asked me what I wanted to do. “I want to spend every day at the pony farm with Dolly,” I said. That request began one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
Dolly was a delightful woman from Virginia who owned 36 of the most incredibly beautiful acres in Moreland Hills, Ohio, complete with a gorgeous Georgian mansion, horse barns, orchards, gardens and pastures. She raised the most beautiful Arabian horses and had several lovely little Welsh ponies.
I just loved her. She raised and butchered her own chickens and Muscovy duck. And she made the best elderflower and dandelion tonics. She knew every plant that grew on her land and often she would send me out with a basket to gather plums, strawberries, blueberries and, in t
he springtime, elderberry flowers. She used these to make the most delicious fritters ever. She showed me how to identify the elderflowers properly, so that I wouldn’t pick the deadly water hemlock instead.
She taught me how to deliver a foal and how to work in an herb garden. She tapped her maple trees for sap for syrup. Dolly was a wealthy woman, but insisted upon doing everything herself. She used everything that she raised from fruits and vegetables to the animals that she kept. She taught me to forage on her property and was the first person to teach me the value of eating wild plants.
She’s been gone for quite a while and I still think of her almost every day, especially when I begin to harvest elderberries. And, make elderberry syrup for the upcoming year.
In Northeast Ohio when we’re in the middle of a raging flu season, elderberry syrup can be one of the best immune-support weapons. Historically, elderberries are traditional folk remedy. So, when elderberries are ripe, I mix up a batch of my favorite elderberry syrup for the long and chilly midwinter days.
Elderberry is readily found along roadsides and in slightly damp areas. Often it’s found in old gardens tucked in a corner where it’s simply been forgotten. In the springtime, you’ll know it by the glorious bunches of white lacey flowers and it’s absolutely wonderful fragrance, reminiscent of vanilla and ripe raisins that you can smell from yards away.
The most important thing that you need to know about the elderberry is how to prepare it. Believe it or not, this beloved plant can be dangerous if you don’t know how to harvest it. The leaves, bark, roots, stem and un-ripened berries are full of cyanide.
Not wishing to poison anyone, I have devised my own method of harvesting the very ripe berries. I learned it last year when the elderberry bush in our Western Reserve Herb Society Garden was covered with more berries than we’d ever seen. We had to pick them quickly lest the birds took the entire harvest. Soon I found myself in the kitchen with a garbage bag full of ripened berry heads and no help. That’s when I discovered that freezing whole clusters of elderberry overnight and them bringing them out one at a time to run a fine-toothed comb through the berries was the way to go. Do it this way and the ripened, frozen berries will fall right off the stems into your bowl, leaving you with simply the unbroken stems to discard.
Once you have all the berries you want, you can freeze them in vacuum sealed packets for later or make a wonderful elderberry syrup which you can use for so many different things.
My elderberry syrup is infused with herbs and fresh fruits from my gardens and honey from the local bees. When it’s ready I process it in mason jars in a water bath. Thus, I have plenty for the thick of winter when I use it most.
Last year’s batch was infused with fresh summer blueberries, lemon balm and sage. I also added fresh mullein leaves and flowers –historically used to cleanse and refresh the lungs — and linden leaves and flowers — traditionally used in France to help soothe the nerves. I also add fresh lemon peel and plenty of ginger, cinnamon, star anise and cardamom to help boost the supportive qualities of this syrup.
Wellness aside, this syrup tastes really good and that’s before it’s added to anything. My husband loves it spooned over vanilla ice cream…I love it added to my midday cup of jasmine tea! You can even add it to vodka for a wonderfully herbal martini or hot whisky for a completely delicious toddy.
The Herban Farmgirl’s Elderberry Syrup
Yields: 5 pints
- 6 cups ripe elderberries
- 4 cups fresh blueberries
- 4 tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh mullein leaves and flowers
- 4 tablespoons dried linden flowers (you can get these from www.mountainroseherbs.com)
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp fresh ginger, grated
- 1 whole star anise
- 1 cardamom pod
- 2 cups of local honey
- 2 cups of turbinado sugar
- 1 sliced Meyer lemon
- 1 cup of lemon juice
- 3 quarts of spring water
Put everything—except lemon juice — into a non- reactive pot. Bring it to a slow boil, stirring often. After 30 minutes strain out the lemon and herbs (the spices are fine to leave in) to prevent the syrup from becoming bitter. Continue to simmer for another 60 to 90 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated to approximately 2 1/2 quarts and is syrupy.
When the liquid has reached the consistency of maple syrup add the lemon juice. Stir. Then, strain out remaining solids. Pour the hot syrup into sterilized pint mason jars. Use a water bath canner to process these jars of syrup for approximately 15 minutes adjusting for altitude. If you’ve never water bath canned before, please go to www.freshpreserving.com for safe and easy instructions.
DISCLAIMER: Even with a remedy as familiar as elderberry, please remember to consult with your doctor, pharmacist or licensed healthcare practitioner. The content given here is for educational purposes only. The information is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
Please bear responsibility for your, the home of a wonderful book named Foraging and Feasting by medicinal herbalist Dana Falconi. There are many excellent resources. Please feel free to comment and share some of yours!