Please note that I am most definitely not a doctor. While we use this tonic in our family to ease the symptoms, and in my opinion, the duration of colds, if you are really sick, you certainly should seek medical attention. For all my love of herbalism, I still get a flu shot every year. Natural remedies and modern medicine needn’t always be enemies. So with that out of the way…
I posted about making our annual batch of elderberry cold tonic on instagram and facebook the other day and a few people asked if I would share my process. This is a multi-step tonic that started a few months ago, so I am going to go through it here in the same way we do, starting with gathering the elderberries.
On September 5th…
My eldest child, myself, and a couple of friends went foraging out near Mount Spokane. We hiked through a forested area filled with steeper areas of broken jutting basalt common here in the Inland Northwest until we crested a hill, skipped over an area of broken half buried barbed wire and emerged into a clearing with several old blue elderberry trees heavy with fruit. This is where we foraged most of our elderberries this year.
I know several spots around Spokane to harvest elderberry but I don’t like to pick on any one spot year after year. I prefer to work my way around them picking where they are most abundant, that way I leave plenty for nature’s needs through the winter. We harvested about 10 cups of elderberries this year. Enough for this and some extra to dry for other uses.
Once home we picked through the berries taking care to remove all the stems and unripened berries. The leaves, bark, unripened berries, and stems of blue elderberry contain sambucine and hydrocyanic acid as well as glycoside, all of which can cause nausea if consumed in small amounts and coma and death in large amounts. So it goes without saying, don’t eat any foraged plant you can’t 100% identify, take time to intimately get to know each one. They deserve your care.
If foraging makes you anxious or is outside your mobility limits, skip on the foraging and just take yourself to your local natural food store and buy them there. Main Market Co-op here in Spokane carries black elderberries (a European variety.)
You can also freeze your foraged elderberries at this point, they will actually get a bit sweeter this way! We skip this part though and made a tincture that evening. This is one of the three components that will go into the tonic.
Our tincture is made with
- 4 cups of distilled spirits (high-proof vodka, everclear, something like that)
- 4 cups elderberries, destemmed
- a jar – I use a half gallon mason jar
Place the elderberries into a suitably sized and sanitized jar and cover them with your spirit of choice. Tuck the jar away in a cupboard and forget about it for several weeks. If you want you can shake it every few days just to see how things are changing. I do! I usually leave it for no fewer than 4 weeks, this year’s batch was left for nine weeks before I decanted it (strained out the berries – save those for the last step!) Your spirit should have turned from clear to the darkest purple.
A note on tinctures: I use distilled spirits to make all my tinctures but you *can* make them with glycerin instead. Here is a tutorial for how to do that on Mountain Rose Herb. Keep in mind a glycerin tincture will not keep the same way as an alcohol one.
In previous years I have used plain raw honey in the next step of the tonic making process. This year though I learned about the wonder that is fermented herbal honey and I have gone a little crazy with making it. This year’s elderberry tonic batch was not spared my new obsession. Grow Forage Cook Ferment has a great tutorial on how to specifically ferment elderberries in honey, so I’ll not rehash it here. Just check out her blog.
I started a batch big enough on October 3rd to yield 3 cups of fermented elderberry honey. You have to invert the jar a few times to get all the berries coated with honey and I have to say it is pretty fun to watch if you like the procrastinate on laundry like me. DIY lava lamp? If you don’t want to make fermented elderberry honey and wait the five to six weeks for that to be done, just acquire 3 cups of honey in the weeks your tincture is brewing.
But the finished strained elderberry honey? So pretty! (I’ll drop a photo bellow.) And absolutely delicious.
(Yesterday as I type this.) This is later in the season than I usually make our tonic but the fermented honey took it’s sweet time getting going. Worth it though! Next year I will start my honey fermenting at the same time I start my tincture in September.
Today you are going to strain your tincture and strain your honey. You are going to have leftover tincture so make sure that goes into a labeled jar. (You can use that separately as a cold remedy too, just put a dropper full in a glass of water and drink up.) Reserve the berries from both the tincture and fermented honey because you are going to make a decoction from them.
For this you are going to need:
- those berries I just mentioned
- 6 cups of filtered water
Put both the water and berries in a large non-reactive pot. Bring it to a boil and then turn it down to gentle simmer and cook for about an hour, stirring frequently to prevent it from scorching to the pot.
Strain out the mash which can be composted at this point, you are done with it. Measure the liquid left over. If it is more than 3 cups it should be returned to the pot and simmered until it is reduced to 3 cups. This is your decoction.
Now it is finally time to put together your tonic.
Our first snow of the season also started when I was at this point yesterday. Yay!
For the tonic you’ll need:
- 3 cups of elderberry decoction
- 3 cups of honey (plain or fermented)
- 1 1/2 cups elderberry tincture
- Sterilized jars
Add your 3 cups of plain or fermented honey to the decoction and stir until dissolved. You might need to gently heat it to get it all dissolved. You should have 6 cups of syrup now.
For every 1 cup of syrup, add ¼ cup of tincture. This is really important, if you don’t use enough tincture you will not get a shelf stable tonic.
Pour your tonic into your jars. I used 4 pint sized jars this year rather than one big jar. I keep whatever jar we are currently using in the fridge and the others in my cool pantry. Don’t forget to date and label the jars!
How do we use it? When someone in the family feels under the weather we all take a spoonful 2 to 4 times a day. My spouse and I take it straight, but my kids prefer it with added honey in an herbal tea (if it is a cold, usually one with echinacea.)
This tonic is not thick like Nyquil. If you want something thicker I would recommend just sticking with the fermented elderberry honey, or mix up a small batch with extra honey when you are sick to the desired consistency. We prefer tea to sooth throats to thick syrup, it’s a personal preference.
The nice thing about elderberry is, at the berries’ essence, they are just a food. If you want to skip on the whole medicinal use, elderberries are perfectly safe, barring an allergy of course. Just make sure you destem them properly and pick out the green berries.
And that is how our elderberry tonic comes into being every year!
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