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Monday, February 11, 2013

Feeling fine on elderberry wine. . .

Or elderberry  syrup, or jelly or pie, or in my case, elderberry tincture. Elderberry, which contains vitamin C,  A and B also contains flavonoids, sugar, tanins, carotenoids, and amino acids, has a long history as an herbal remedy. Rosemary Gladstar, in  her book, Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, notes that  elderberry syrup is the most popular herbal cold remedy in Europe. Native Americans used elderberry  for a number of  ailments, and recent preliminary scientific studies have shown elderberry extract to be an effective treatment for Type A flu if taken at the first sign of symptoms.

 I keep a bottle of elderberry tincture around and have found that if  Mr. G and I take a spoonful at the first sign of a scratchy throat or flu-like symptoms, it seems to  keep whatever we were coming down with at bay. We've gone several years now without  suffering  the flu or even a major cold. It may not work for everyone and shouldn't be considered as a replacement for traditional  flu preventatives and medications, but it has worked well for us so far.

A few years ago we would gather wild elderberries, but it was often  difficult to get to the berries before other critters had harvested them, so I ordered an elderberry  bush  from Possum Creek Herb Farm.  It has grown like wildfire,  and is a lovely sight in May and June when it is in full bloom. I sometimes gather and dry the elder flowers to make  elderberry tea, which is quite delicious sweetened with  local honey.
  When  if has finished flowering,  the berries form, green at first, then turning red, and finally a deep  purple. That is  when they are ready to harvest. Here in Alabama, they  are usually  fully ripe by the middle to end of July.

Sometimes, though,  there are few berries  left to harvest.  I've found umbels  picked clean by birds and bugs. But usually  I can gather enough to make a  nice jar of tincture, if not enough for pies and jelly.
It's important to separate the berries from the stems completely, as the stems, leaves and bark  are said to be toxic if ingested.  I have decided not to  test this out  on myself or Mr. G and am VERY careful to keep the stems  out. Some people use a fork to remove the berries, and others freeze them first, which is said to make removal easier, but I just  use my hands and fingers and that has worked well for me so far. Once the berries are separated, I rinse   them and drain them in a colander, then put  them in a  clean canning jar, filling it  1/2 to 3/4 full of berries. I then  fill the jar with the solvent or menstruum, completely covering the berries.  I  use 100 proof vodka.  You could also use gin brandy or  rum. If you do use alcohol it should  be  at least 80 proof. The proof  tells you the percentage of alcohol- 100 proof  50% alcohol, 50% water, 80 proof is 40% alcohol 60% water. The alcohol serves as a preservative, but if there is a health condition or other problem that  precludes using alcohol, glycerin or vinegar can be used instead, but I have never tried that.

Once the jar is filled, I cap it and place it in a dark  cupboard for about  2 months. I  try to shake or turn the jar at least once a day, since it seems to help speed up the extraction process, but I don't think  it's crucial and have been known to skip several days without dire consequences. 
This jar  had been sitting for   less than a week, and the liquid had already turned a lovely dark color. After a  couple of months, I strain off the liquid, bottle it up, label it  and we are  all set to face  flu season with a little more confidence. We usually just take a teaspoon full a couple of times a day when we first begin to feel  symptoms, but  you could also add the tincture to juice, water or herbal tea. We have found that it rarely takes more than one or two doses to do the trick.

So we  have been feeling fine  this flu season with our tincture, but I may  be lucky enough to have a bumper crop of berries this summer.  Maybe even enough to make a tincture AND some elderberry wine. Then we can sing "Elderberry Wine" along with Elton John :-)

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