Exploring the beauty and mystery of the body.

November 18, 2013
by tammi

Elder, Medicine Chest of the Field


This is a brief homage to the often-overlooked medicine chest of the field, Elder. Overlooked by folks while walking along fields and edges, not overlooked by those in the “know” and want herbal help with colds and flu. Elder (Sambucus nigra) gets its latin name from sambuca, the wind instrument made from Elder’s hollow branches and nigra from the dark purple berry.

Elder has been heavily researched for its anti-viral properties in many countries. It is a staple in our medicine chest, especially during the winter months when cold and flu tend to be more common. All parts of the plant, bark, leaf, flower and berry are medicinal.

The flower is a diaphoretic, meaning it helps one to sweat. Sweating is the way to break a fever. The flower is also anti-viral (colds and flu are viruses), anti-spasmodic (think of bronchioles in the lungs spasming as you cough) and anti-catarrhal (helps the body remove mucous). The berry is also diaphoretic, diuretic (helps you pee more, which helps flush the system), anti-rheumetic (helps with aches and pains when sick) and anti-viral.

Before we move onto to plant identification, let’s pause for a brief educational moment on viruses.  A virus is a small particle that needs a host cell to reproduce. The cold, rhinovirus, likes to use the cells lining the mucous membrane in your nose to reproduce. The flu, influenza virus, likes to use the cells lining the mucous membrane of your upper respiratory tract to reproduce. Both viruses do NOT like to live in warm temperatures. That is why they don’t infect the lower respiratory tract and are inhibited when you raise your internal temperature by one degree with a fever! Once the virus is in your cell, it hacks into your DNA in the nucleus and tells your cell to stop production of whatever it was making and start making the virus! The DNA in your nucleus is the place where your cell has the code for making all it needs. Now that the host cell is “infected” with the virus it will make viral particles until they fill the cell and literally, break it open and kill it. At this point the viral particles move on to the next host cell. How do we defend against this since our immune cells really can’t get into our own cells?

Our body has evolved to defend against viruses with a multi-pronged approach. First, there are cells continually policing the blood looking for viruses. When they find them, they ingest them, break them down and recycle the parts. Second, when a cell is infected by a virus it sends out a chemical flare called a cytokine to tell other cells, “There’s a virus in the house! Batten down the hatches. Don’t let it in!” Uninfected cells receive the message and tighten up their cell membranes so the virus can’t get in. This is where Elder comes in. It increases the cells tightening up their defense against viruses getting in and it increases cytokine production, which attracts cells to help with the infections, signals uninfected cells to decrease their permeability to the virus and decrease viral replication inside the cell. Wow!

Where Do We Find It and How To Identify It?

elderflower closeupLook for it along edges of fields and wooded areas. Our native Elders are medium to large shrubs or small trees with pinnately compound leaves. Pinnate means a “leaf” consists of many, 7 for elder, leaflets arranged opposite each other along a stem. A true leaf looks like many individual leaves arranged along a stem.  The Elder leaf can be up to 20 inches long. The flowers are ¼ inch wide, five-petaled and arranged in a somewhat flattened cluster with up to 100 flowers per cluster. 

Flowers can be harvested in late June or early July in upstate NY. Remember, any flowers you harvest will not become berries later in the season. I like to wander from bush to bush and take a little from each so no one bush is overharvested. I dry some flowers for making the infusion for recipe #2 I make later when I have the elderberries. It’s also good to have some dried flowers to make a tea or infusions throughout the year. I also make sure to have elderflower tincture on hand throughout the season for fevers and because of its anti-viral properties. I make a special batch of elderflower tincture in brandy for the elder syrup recipe #1. (Both recipes are listed below). Some folks pick the flowers off individually from the stems by hand. I usually take scissors and cut them. It’s all up to you.

Now for the messy part, harvesting and processing the berries. They ripen late July through mid September in upstate NY. They ripen in stages so plan on wandering back to the bushes multiple times over a few weeks. I cut the berries off at the stem and bring the big basket home to de-stem individual berries. Some folks like to freeze the berries with the stems on and de-stem frozen. My delicate little fingers don’t like the cold and it’s a bit messier this way. I like to de-stem in the fresh berries in batches and put up the black jewels in gallon freezer bags to make syrup when the harvesting season comes to a close (and I’ve had a chance to recover from the garden season).  If you missed the harvest season for this year, you can order both dried flowers and berries from herbal growers.destemming hands

Medicine Making

I have two variations for making syrup. One uses honey as a preservative, and tastes yummy, and the other uses brandy and vegetable glycerine. This tastes great as well and uses alcohol as a preservative. If you choose the recipe using glycerine, make sure it is vegetable glycerine! Mountain Rose Herbs has elder flowers, berries and vegetable glycerine and is an excellent source for organic, sustainably harvested herbs.

The recipes:

Elderberry Syrup #1 (makes 1 qt)            

  1. Mix the following in batches in the blender 
    • 3  cups de-stemmed elderberries
    • ¾ cup Brandy 
    • 1 1/3 cup vegetable glycerine
  2. Place in jar in cool dark place for 2-4 weeks.
  3. Strain through mesh colander using wooden spoon and place in quart jar in cool dark place.

Elderberry Syrup # 2 non-alcohol  (makes ½  gallon)

  1. Cook 4 cups de-stemmed elderberries for an hour.
  2. Put through fruit mill (yields about 1.5 cups juice)
  3. Add 1 cup elderflower infusion for a total of 2.5 cups
  4. Add 3 parts honey (7.5 cups)
  5. Mix well and store in cool dark placesingle tincture


Conservative dosing of the syrup for a 150 pound adult is ½-1 teaspoon 3-5x/day during acute onset. So for children, divide it according to body weight (75 pound child would need half the dose, or ¼- ½ teaspoon).

Happy Medicine Making.

November 5, 2013
by tammi

Autumn Olive Who Are You and Why Should We Be Friends?


Maybe you already know all the cool and popular berries, strawberry, blueberry, mulberry and blackberry. Maybe you’ve even branched out to get to know elderberry or gooseberry? I’d like to take a little time here to introduce you to the lesser known Autumn olive or Autumn berry for people who can’t connect the word “olive” with something sweet. We started to become friends when I wandered across them in a field in late fall and wanted to know, “Who is this sparkly jewel available so late in the season? And yum!”

For you folks who spend the growing season doing just that, growing and harvesting and canning and weeding and making medicine, this little jewel comes at a time where perhaps you’ve had 15 minutes of rest from all your bountiful harvesting. I typically harvest the berries in late October when I’ve had a little chance to rest and the berries have had a chance soften and sweeten.

There are many ways to work with Autumn Olive and we’ll get to that later. For now, here are some facts.

Description (how would you find it in the “wild”) For the Latin lovers you would know autumn olive as Elaeagnus umbellate the “sacred olive tree” from the Oleaster family.

Autumn olive does not originate from these parts but comes from China, Korea and Japan. This lovely bush was brought here in the 1800’s for a myriad of uses including supplemental food (yum), ornamental, as a fast-growing windbreak, and as a soil rejuvenator (is a nitrogen fixer and able to accumulate toxic lead and zinc from the soils). Additional benefits are bestowed upon the wildlife that  utilizes this berry as a food source.


Autumn olive is a shrub or small tree growing up to 30 ft tall. The 1-inch wide, elliptical-shaped, silvery, leaves arrange themselves alternately along the branch and are 2-3 inches long. Younger shrubs may have thorns, but as the bush ages, the number of thorns decrease. In the spring, creamy, yellow, four-petaled flowers are quite fragrant. Unripe clusters of pea-sized, green berries hang all summer until the fall, when they plump up, and turn orange-red coated with silvery (I like to think sparkly), flakes. For a complete description check out Samuel Thayer’s; Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants.

 Nutritional: These little berries are packed with the following, but not limited to: Vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, Niacin, Folic acid, lycopene, quercetin, Beta carotene, ascorbic acid, tryptophan, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, calcium and essential fatty acids.

Medicinal Actions: Antimicrobial (especially the flowers) activity has been shown against bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, E. coli, and Pseudomonus aeruginosa.

Antioxidant activity of the berries high in Vitamins A, C, E, quercetin, lycopene (17-18 times higher than the mighty tomato!) and other flavinoids has been shown.

Anticancer: Free radical scavenging capabilities have been studied by the USDA. These in vitro (In a petri dish with cells, NOT in living organism.) studies showed the berries were able to inhibit the proliferation of human leukemia cancer cells and human lung epithelial cells.

Adaptogen? Who knows? This plant hasn’t really been studied much. As Timothy Lee Scott says in his book Invasive Plant Medicine, “Autumn olive might be the next Noni Gou Ji Wonderberry Cure-All Juice. Watch for it on store shelves.” Not sure what an adaptogen is? Think long-life promoter and able to help you leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Fun Food Uses: The main reason for sharing this with you is to share the yummy, nutritional and fun activity of making fruit leather with the beautiful sparkly berries. Yes, you can eat them raw or make juice, jam, pie too, but I think the leather is spectacular!! Here are the simple instructions.


  1. Find your resident Autumn Olive bushes (yes, you still might find some now with berries) and pick at least a gallon. This will give you approximately 4-6 trays of leather.
  2. Bring home and pick out bugs, leaves and stray sticks.
  3. Put all the berries through a food mill. That’s right raw-foodies, no cooking involved!
  4. Mix the pressed fruit well as the juice will try to separate from the pulp.
  5. At this point you could add other berry purees (I’ve tried blueberry and mango puree!) or a simple sweetener, I’ve tried maple syrup, or just leave them as is.
  6. Spread out on a fruit leather tray for your dehydrator and dry away!
  7. Eat, share and enjoy!

*I do have a solar dehydrator, and I choose the electric dehydrator for fruit leather. And yes, I have the Cadillac of dehydrators, the 9-shelf, auto-timing, Excalibur. Please don’t fret and think you need to take out a second mortgage, you can use any electric dehydrator. Though I do recommend investing in the fruit leather liners.  

 Hopefully you can go out right now and harvest your own. If not, there’s always next year to start your new love affair.