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An elderberry syrup to drive the sniffles (and Satan) away!

There is evidence elderberries may have anti-viral properties so whip up a batch of this delicious syrup ahead of cold and flu season.

Just one of the many uses people have found for this common but fascinating tree.

Elder, its uses and the Devil


"Elder" comes from the Anglo-saxon 'aeld', meaning fire, because the hollow stems were used to blow air into the centre of a hearth. It was thought that if you burned elder wood you would see the Devil, but if you planted elder by your house it would keep the Devil away.

The foliage was used to keep flies away and branches were often hung around dairies. There are still those who believe a rub down with elder leaves will keep the dreaded Scottish midge at bay. Good luck with that!

Elder trees were the sources of many coloured dyes used historically to make lushly-patterned Harris Tweed. Blue and purple from the berries; yellow and green from the leaves; grey and black from the bark.

Vitamin and nutrient packed as they are, the berries have long had a health-boosting reputation.

But can they really get rid of colds and flu? I like medicinal claims to have some science behind them.

A little online research reveals those making the boldest claims for elderberry extract are usually linked to selling it. But more sober and impartial scientific voices seem convinced there is evidence elderberry has antiviral properties - and might knock a few days off the duration of symptoms even if not offering total prevention or cure. Given elderberry syrup won’t hurt and tastes great -that’s good enough for me!

Elder Berries Paul Sterry NPL
(Photo: P Sterry-NPL/WTML)

Harvesting elderberries

Elder trees are extremely common all over the country and notable for their creamy white flowers popular for making cordials and hedgerow "champagne" in early summer. Come autumn the trees hang heavy with shiny black berries on crimson stalks. Look for pinnate leaves with five or seven to the stalk. Between the leaves and the berries there really isn’t anything else you can mistake for elder in autumn.

The berries are small but come in huge bunches. The easiest way to harvest them is to take the whole head home and then use a fork to push the berries off the stalks.

Raw berries are mildly poisonous and will produce a pronounced laxative effect if you eat more than a few. They are safe once cooked, and have lots of uses. A handful of elderberries are an excellent addition to an apple pie filling.

They make outstanding wine, but patience is required. Like red wine grapes they are high in tannin and so the tipple needs time to mature. Wonderfully complex flavours will emerge over a couple of years as the tannin mellows. Wine made with a mix of elderberries and blackberries can be enjoyed younger, if you don’t feel you can hold out!

But to the recipe at hand. No need to leave this syrup to mature as the sugar takes care of any tannin bitterness.

Elderberry, Cinammon and Ginger Syrup

I’m indebted to Grass Roots Remedies in Edinburgh who showed me the following recipe at a workshop last year. Quantities are not exact. Add cinnamon and ginger to taste, but please follow the process to ensure the syrup is safely cooked.

  1. Carefully separate your elderberries from their stalks with a fork or your hands
  2. Chop up a little ginger into small pieces
  3. Put the elderberries and chopped ginger into a pan, and cover them with water
  4. Bring to the boil, and then let them simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly
  5. Pour the mixture through a jelly bag or muslin (fine cloth) and allow the juice to drip through. Extract as much liquid as possible
  6. Pour the elderberry liquid into a measuring jug, and measure how much you have. Now add equal parts sugar to the liquid mixture. So if you measured 500ml of juice, add 500g of sugar, or if you have 1 litre of liquid, add 1 kilo of sugar
  7. Add the sugar and a little ground cinnamon or cinnamon stick to the strained liquid. Simmer for five minutes and then cool and pour into sterilised bottles

You can take this lovely syrup by the spoonful as it is, but it is also nice with porridge in the morning, or with yoghurt.

In the fridge in properly sterilised containers it should last for up to a year. If you have any doubts though, or it starts to ferment, don't use it.

Elder is one of our most useful species for the wild food forager. Whether you make wine or syrup, or jazz up an apple pie, get out there this autumn and make the most of this magnificent berry crop.