About a year ago, I started to take an interest in using more natural remedies for the everyday ailments that we face here on the homestead.
Minor cuts, scrapes, bee stings, and the occasional coyote attack are all regular occurrences, and instead of relying on antibiotic creams, Benadryl, and Tylenol, I wanted to find something a little less… pharmaceutical. So I stepped outside.
Long, long before the days of Merck and Pfizer, people relied on what was growing nearby for their afflictions. Now at first, I’m sure there were some mix-ups, and someone ate the wrong red berries on occasion (“Sorry Grok, I meant those red ones… Grok?”). But over the course of centuries and even millennia, humans developed a pretty good catalog of which plants helped with a wide variety of ills. (This book is a great beginner’s resource.)
So from time to time, I’m going to introduce a new plant that I’m cultivating and discuss some of its merits. Many of them grow wild, and you can find seeds for many more (Horizon Herbs is a good resource). Some may be new to you, but I guarantee that you’ll know many of them already; maybe you just didn’t realize that they were more than weeds.
The first addition to your backyard medicine cabinet is elderberry; a good thing too, since we’re coming up on cold and flu season.
Elderberry is fairly common in the wild, and I’d be willing to bet that a lot of you have seen it. The large clusters of small black berries are easily recognizable, it generally grows 5-10 feet tall, and they’re not too picky about habitat, so they pop up just about anywhere there’s enough light. I planted a couple, then later found a large one growing at the edge of the woods that I hadn’t noticed until it flowered.
The berries are often used to make elderberry wine and syrup, and in the spring, the flower clusters can be picked as well and are also used in making cordials and syrups.
As for the medicinal benefits, elderberry boasts many. A potent antiviral and immune stimulant, a number of studies have shown that elderberry extract can help alleviate cold and flu symptoms, and even shorten the duration.
Elderberries get their dark color from anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant (think blueberries, black currants, and other dark fruits), and also contain high levels of vitamin C (more than oranges!), other flavonoids, and good amounts of vitamins A and B.
To capitalize on all that goodness, you can certainly make wine, though that requires a little extra effort. Syrups and jellies are also good, but contain added sugar. The simplest and most straightforward way to capture the power of the elderberry is with a tincture. To make a tincture, you’re basically just letting whatever it is that you’re tincturing soak in high-proof alcohol (vegetable glycerin or vinegar also work, but alcohol is the best medium for extracting all the medicinal components).
In this case, pick your elderberries, place them in a mason jar, and cover fully with 80-100 proof vodka (something cheap will work just fine). Let this sit in a cool, dark place for at least a month, and give it a quick shake every day or two.
At the end of the month, strain out the berries and bottle up your new elderberry tincture. A dark bottle with a dropper is great; a regular mason jar is fine. Just keep it in the same cool, dark place. This should keep for at least several years.
When you’re feeling a cold coming on (or everyone around you has one), take a dropperful (or teaspoon) a few times a day. Drink it straight or mix it with some water if you prefer. For those concerned about giving alcohol to children: mixing the tincture with a little hot water (like making tea) will evaporate the alcohol but leave behind the beneficial parts.
If you don’t have elderberries, you can buy some dehydrated berries to make your own, or just skip that and get elderberry syrup or elderberry tincture – they even make elderberry gummies! Since we started taking this, I have noticed a stark difference in the duration and severity of our colds. If we load up at the first sign of sore throat or sniffles, the illness often never proceeds beyond that. This is a serious game-changer!
A Couple Notes
Eating the raw berries can cause stomach distress in some people. It’s best to cook them first, or just stick with the juice preparations and don’t eat the actual berry.
Only use the black elder. Red elder is toxic, and can be noted by larger berries, more grape-like clusters, and oh yeah, the berries are red.
For more healing plants, check out the rest of the Backyard Medicine Cabinet series:
- Lemon Balm
- St. John’s Wort
- Red Clover
- Stinging Nettles
And check out these other immune-boosting options:
- Flu-fighting Healthy Gummies
- Herbal Remedies for Stuffy Nose
- Natural Sore-Throat Remedies
- Essential Oils for Cough Relief
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be one. I don’t think any of my statements have been evaluated by the FDA, which is probably a good thing considering some of the stuff they approve… Do your own research before trusting the word of a random blogger. While I certainly encourage you to try some herbal remedies, I’m not suggesting you ditch all your prescriptions. I think modern medicine is awesome; I also think the natural world is pretty awesome too, and can offer a lot for minor ailments.