When I got sick last week with body aches and sudden fatigue, I was glad to have elderberry tincture on hand. Multiple studies show that elderberry is extremely effective at curing the flu. In one study published in the Journal of International Medical Research, 90% of Norwegian influenza patients who took elderberry extract were back to normal within three days, compared to six days for the control group, which took placebos. Another study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found similar results. Both focused on a standardized extract of black elderberry, Sambucus nigra.
I put a couple teaspoons of the sweet dark pink liquid in two cups of tea and I was back to my health within two days. I got the elderberry tincture from Portland herbalist Nicole Pepper. I bartered with her, offering her some Oregon Grape root tincture I’d made.
You can buy elderberry tincture at health food stores or you can make it yourself. Elderberry shrubs grow all over the world, especially in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. They grow up to 25 feet tall everywhere from forested riversides to waste places at elevations up to 10,000 feet. (You can find them as ornamentals in landscaping, too).
You can identify an elderberry shrub by its leaves, which are smooth in texture; lance-shaped with toothed edges; and compound, arranged opposite each other in groups of five to nine leaflets. The tiny flowers hang in flat clusters. Elderberry is in the honeysuckle family, botanically speaking. More on ID here.
There are three main kinds of elderberry, American (black), Sambucus nigra, which is a shrub up to 4 meters tall; blue, Sambucus cerulea, a tree up to 12 meters tall that grows in dry, open habitats; and red, Sambucus racemosa, which likes stream banks, moist clearings and open forests. I see red and blue elderberry most often in the local wilderness areas, and black in landscaping. The distinction between these kinds matters not at all in terms of harvesting flowers. But when the berries come around for eating, the black and blue are far, far tastier, and good to eat raw, whereas the red must be cooked first because they reportedly contain higher levels of toxins in them. The red elderberries are indeed red, or else yellow-orange. The black and blue berries are good candidates to become jam, syrup, wine, etc.
There are actually even more varieties of elderberry, especially in urban and suburban settings, where people like to plant it as an ornamental.
All parts of all elderberry species other than the flowers and berries contain cyanide-producing compounds, so it is a good idea to avoid the leaves, stems and bark when harvesting for food or medicine.
To make the medicine yourself, you need to find the flowers in late spring or ripe berries in mid-summer through fall. If the berries are blue or black in color and are hanging in a cluster that’s facing downward, you’re good. If they are red and seem to be reaching toward the sky, however, abort the mission, because it means you’ve got a potentially toxic species on hand. (Flowers of red will be fine). And be sure to avoid eating any other parts of an elderberry of any species because the leaves, branches and bark contain cyanide. (Knowledgeable herbalists may point out that the cyanide can be medicinal in itself in small quantities for other conditions.)
As always, gather conservatively. Elderberry is an important food for nonhuman animals, including bears and bees, and it provides shelter for birds and small mammals.
*Mix one part berries or flowers with two parts alcohol solution in a glass jar – which means fill jar with plant matter, then pour in liquid and it will fill the spaces.
*Let sit in the dark for two to six weeks to cure.
The alcohol solution, called a “menstruum,” should be 50% strength, which means use 100 proof vodka or brandy, or buy a stronger kind and dilute it down with water.
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