Sunday, August 8, 2010

Homemade Elderberry Cold and Flu Syrup

Common Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra
Image courtesy of Dave's Garden PlantFiles and Melody Rose, photographer

Elderberries are ripening now in our gardens, and so are the wild ones along the roadsides. It's easy to use some to for a homemade cough/cold/flu syrup extract, but you must be sure you pick the edible variety, the common black elderberry, Sambucus nigra. Only the berries of the black elderberry are edible (cooked; raw = stomach distress), the rest of the plant is toxic. There is a poisonous red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, which you must avoid (although birds seem eat the berries).

Red Elderberries, Sambucus racemosa, All Parts Poisonous, Photo by Ken Harris
Image courtesy of Dave's Garden PlantFiles and Melody Rose, photographer

Elderberries are commonly used to make country wine and yummy jelly, but their real value is in the natural health and healing properties we are now re-discovering. Elderberries contain amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, vitaman A and B and a large amount of vitamin C. They are also mildly laxative, a diuretic, and diaphoretic (aiding in fever management). Flavonoids, including quercetin, are believed to account for the therapeutic actions of the elderberry flowers and berries. According to studies, these phytochemicals known as flavonoids include anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants and protect cells against damage.

Elderberry syrup (or extract, same thing without sugar) boosts the immune system to fight coughs, colds, flu, bacterial infections, viral infections, and tonsilitis. It also is said to lower cholesterol and improve vision and heart health. Clinical studies support the health-giving reputation elderberry has had for centuries. Elderberry is also very effective for relieving stress, and it is so effective it is being considered for military troops under stress.

H1N1 Virus
A recent study published in the July 2009 issue of the scientific journal, Phytochemistry (2009 Jul;70(10):1255-61), declares that "elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro."

Similarly, a study published in the Journal of International Medical Research (2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40) examined the efficacy of black elderberry syrup (marketed under the name Sambucol) in a group of flu sufferers in Norway. They determined that their symptoms were relieved on average four days earlier when taking elderberry extract compared with a control group receiving a placebo.

So, here's how to make your own elderberry syrup:

Elderberry Syrup Recipe #1 
makes 1 quart
2 pounds fresh elderberries, stemmed and rinsed
4 cups water
2 cups sugar, to taste
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Put the berries and water in a non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes until the berries are soft and squishy. Cool, and run the pot contents through a food mill, discarding the skins and very tiny seeds. If you don't have a food mill, you can thoroughly mash the cooked berries in the pot, and strain through a jelly bag, allowing them to drip for several hours.

Put the strained juice back in the pot, add the sugar and lemon juice and cook at just below boiling for a few minutes, until the syrup is clear and has thickened. Cool thoroughly, and pour into a sterilized bottle or jar. Store in the refrigerator.

Elderberry Syrup Recipe #2
makes 1 quart 
2 cups fresh elderberries, stemmed and rinsed
4 cups water
1½ cups honey, to taste
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Directions: use the same directions as recipe #1.

Neither of the recipes suggest canning in a hot water bath, but there is no reason not to do so. (They don't because the recipes just make one quart, easily refrigerated.) The berries have already been cooked so there is no added nutritional loss from heat. I am making a triple batch in half pint jars to share with friends, and I will process them in a water bath. My friends can transfer them to a stoppered refrigerator bottle if they choose, but the syrup must be refrigerated after breaking the seal.

No access to fresh elderberries?  
You can substitute 1/2 cup dried elderberries for the 4 cups of fresh berries. I'd put the dried berries soaking in the water for a couple of hours or more to completely rehydrate, before cooking, and probably add a bit of extra water to compensate for the berries being dry. Here's one online source for dried elderberries; there may be more, so check around.

Using Black Elderberry Syrup
To prevent catching a cold or the flu, take one teaspoon of the syrup morning and evening. If you are treating someone who's already ill, give the person a teaspoonful every two or three hours.

Children love elderberry syrup, so it's very easy to give to them. If this remedy is being given to babies under two years of age, make the syrup with sugar instead of honey.

Elderberry syrup is also a delicious treat when poured over ice cream, and it's a favorite for pancakes. Try mixing a teaspoonful in a glass of ginger ale to settle a queasy stomach!


  1. Here in the panhandle of Idaho, we have wild elderberries growing up and down the logging roads. I frequently collect them when they're ripe and use my Mehu Maija steam juicer to extract the beautiful juice which I then turn into syrup or jelly. I had an elderly, German friend who made a winter cold remedy from the juice I gave her. I'm going to try my elderberry syrup as a cold remedy this year! Thanks for the well written and thought-provoking posts.

  2. Thanks. You have a great steam juicer... sure wish I had one!

    I just finished making my elderberry syrup for winter colds and flu; I made enough to share!

  3. Cold and flu are often terrible. It is not too easy to recover from them. It will cure only after completing its time period in the body. I am always interested in natural/herbal treatment, because they dont have side effects. Thanks for the advice. Good one and informative.

  4. Is it easy to get the right berries? Meaning are there look a likes? I would so like to make this cough syrup. Sounds much better than the peppermint/whiskey cough syrup we usually make. More natural.

    1. Yes, it's easy to get the right berries. They grow wild everywhere, but avoid the ones on rods with a lot of traffic; they can be contaminated by auto exhaust fumes.

      Elderberries with red fruit that grow in rounded clusters like the red berries in the photo above are poisonous.

      There is another shrub that looks somewhat like the elderberry. It is called herculesi club. It's important to note the differences since this shrub has poisonous black berries. The herculesi shrub has a thorny, unbranched trunk. This is the main difference to look for as the elderberry has no thorns.

      Also avoid unripe green berries as they will make you sick. Sometimes the ripe but uncooked berries will make you nauseous. Cooking and/or drying elderberries removes any harmful effects you might experience from eating them raw.


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