Blog: Gathering Elderberries: This Week’s Wild Medicinal Plant


I recently took a trip to the Hackensack marshes, where I foraged some of my favorite medicinal plants, including Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicarium) and elderberries (Samucus nigra).

Along my favorite trail there are lots of elder bushes rising up out of the tangle of roses, grape vines and honeysuckle.  I always make a point of going there during the late spring and mid summer to gather the flowers and the berries.  As there are so many, I can gather a bagful of elderberries by harvesting two or three clusters from each bush, leaving most of them untouched.

The flowers can be gathered without the need to pick the umbels.  When they are ripe enough, I’ll hold a bag beneath each umbel in turn and shake it.  Half the petals will fall away, and land in the bag, leaving the bush intact.  With the berries, I harvest before they’ve fully ripened, as the birds will snag them the moment they are ripe.

When you are elder gathering, you’ll find that carrying a 4ft pole with a hook on the end will come in very handy for pulling down the upper branches (with the most showy clusters).

Elderberry has been used historically for its medicinal properties by many cultures, with good reason.  Modern clinics are exploring the beneficial components in the plant and are using it with good result.  Oncologists in Israel are using extracts of the plant to treat cancer and AIDS.

It is so effective in boosting the immune system, that, as a kidney transplant recipient, I have to avoid regular ingestion, as it can counteract my immunosuppressants.  However, I’m not averse to drinking a few cups of elderflower tea when I get a cold or flu.  It lessens symptoms and considerably speeds recovery.  I make a special tea for whenever a virus hits

Cold and flu tea:  Combine equal amounts of elderflowers, boneset leaf*, mullein leaf and coltsfoot leaf (1/4 ounce of each).  Put them into a quart jar and fill it with just boiled water.  If the jar is made of glass put a large metal spoon in it and pour the water directly onto the spoon (it stops the jar from cracking).  Put a lid on the jar, but don’t screw it tight.  When it has partly cooled, stir in an ounce of raw honey (local is even better) and a sliced lemon.  Leave for 4 hours (or as long as you can).  Filter into another jar, lid it up and keep in the fridge.  Drink about 2/3 cup every 4 to 6 hours (when I feel the symptoms returning).

* If you don’t have boneset, try camomile.

It tastes really good.  What’s more, it helps lower cholesterol and improves vision.  If it didn’t conflict with my meds, I’d be drinking it every day.

Of course the berries are just as potent but they are not to be eaten like other berries. They have very little flesh, crunchy seeds and they are bitter tasting.  They also tend to be poisonous when raw.  Cooking renders them safe and improves the flavor, but you’ll need to add a sweetener.  In fact, if you have harvested enough berries, I’d recommend making a syrup.  It can be used much like honey, to sweeten and fortify drinks.  Adding an ounce of syrup to a glass of seltzer makes a healthy and tasty soda drink.  The syrup can be taken straight as a remedy for coughs, so why not put it over pancakes while you’re at it.


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