Category Archives: Colds and flu

Elder elixir

Elderberry Elixir

From the perch of my bed, I like to watch a family of ravens that hang out atop a cypress tree that’s about a block away. Last week, when a storm came through the city, Jam and I sat and watched as one brave raven continued to sit on his perch, facing into the wind, despite the constant battering. He was a brave bird. When it comes to flu season, I feel a lot like that bird. There’s a constant battering going on: of commercials for flu products (honestly, taking a bunch of pills to suppress your symptoms and get back to work really isn’t the answer!), of commercials for flu shots, of germs flying around, of everyone around me getting sick, and I’m just doing what I can to cling on to my health and sanity.

I read once, in a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner, about herbal ‘antibiotics’ and why they’re so much more effective than chemical ones. Viruses mutate. Its a fact of life. You know what else mutates? Plants. Fact. So just as a virus can psychically pass on all its viral information to other viruses (and by the way, can we please learn to communicate like that more?), plants do the same. So some guy in a lab coat extracts one chemical from one plant that reportedly kills X virus but its only a matter of time before the virus figures out the chemical and mutates so that it is no longer affected by it. Kinda like people, who, under duress for long enough will mutate to accept those circumstances as normal. So there’s this chase-and-catch up thing where people try to manufacture things that kill viruses and then the viruses mutate and then another chemical needs to be made, and its a frantic, circular dance. But then you have plants, some of which have over a hundred chemicals in them. A HUNDRED*! In one little plant! One hundred chemicals are a good adversary for a nasty virus. And even if the virus mutates, plants are clever. There’s a whole conversation going on out there in nature that we’re not privy to, and I trust it to carry on in the same way its been carrying on for millennia.

My point being that there are things out there that are perfectly suited to helping our bodies not get sick, or dramatically reduce the length of a sickness. Elderberry is one of them, and its probably in my top-ten-most-used list. This is my recipe for elderberry elixir– the same one I sell in my shop, and have had hundreds of people report back on the efficacy of. It can be customised for you and your area, for example, if you live in the North East where its often cold and damp, maybe add more ginger and orange peel (both warming). If you live in the southwest like me and are often prone to dried out irritated respiratory passages, add some marshmallow (warning, this will go gooey). If you get more lung stuff add mullein and if you don’t have mullein add thyme. Really, the possibilities are almost endless, but here’s a list of possible modifiers or ingredients for you to play around with:

Elderberry- The life of the party, seriously.
Elderflower- Elderberry’s partner. Some say the flowers are even more effective than the berries. If you’re ordering berries then place an order for the flowers too and use both.
Cinnamon- Warming, nourishing, boosts digestion, great flavour.
Ginger- warming, dries mucus, tastes good.
Cardamom- as with the other spices, its warming, good for the phlegmmy stuff and tastes good.
Echinacea- stimulates immune function
Aralia racemosa (or Californica)- supports lung function in worn out chronic overtired conditions. Beautiful little plant.
Mullein- personal favourite for dried out chronic coughs. I always put this in my elder elixir because there’s always dried out lung stuff here.
Boneset- another one that stimulates immune function. Better fresh, so use it if it grows in your area. Or if you’re like me, go visit friends in Kentucky in the early summer so you can gather it and bring it home on the plane (much to the astonishment of TSA).
Orange peel- Warming and energy moving.
Lemon peel- Cooling and energy-moving.
Rosehips- Great source of vitamin C
Thyme- A favourite lung grunge herb.
Bee balm or oregano- Antimicrobial, bloody delicious, slightly zingy and spicy. 
Juniper-
Antimicrobial

On ingredients: Elderberries are really abundant in nature, and I really recommend you get out there and find some local bushes. But its the middle of winter and you’re unlikely to find any right now unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, so you can order them, and everything else on the list, from Mountain Rose Herbs.

On flu season: There’s some nasty flu bugs going around right now. I know this because I’ve caught at least two of them, and because we herbalists are like a mycelial network, passing information back and forth. Its not just here, in fact I’d say those of us in Southern California have been getting off easy. Make or buy some elderberry elixir. Make some fire cider. Take your Vitamin D daily (for reals).

Some of my favourite flu-season resources:

Herbs for the Immune System from Juliet
Creating a herbal medicine chest for colds and flu from Rosalee De La Foret
Green Man’s Guide to Flu Season  by Sean
The Elder Mother’s Pantry
 from Kiva

*I don’t know if this is an accurate number and I haven’t looked it up. The part of my brain that remembered this number is also the part that says ‘I’ll be five minutes’ when it is in fact an hour…

Elderberry Immune Elixir

Quantities are for a quart jar, and using dried ingredients. If you use fresh, reduce the volume by half please.

1 cup dried elderberries.
1/2 cup dried elderflowers.
1/4 cup dried mullein leaf
1/4 cup dried boneset
1 inch fresh ginger, chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
peel of 1/2 lemon

Alcohol of your choice- I love brandy, but you can use vodka, whisky, tequila, everclear or gin too.
Honey. Raw and local if possible, but whatever you have works.

Ok, this is the easy part. Once you have all your ingredients, put them all in the jar, then fill a third of the way with honey. This will take a while as the honey is thick.  Don’t worry, just pour it, and come back every 20 minutes to re-pour until its a third of the way up. You can also heat the honey before pouring to make it easier, I just don’t like to do this as it destroys some of the lovely things that are in the honey. After the honey’s in the jar, top it up with your alcohol. Voila. Done. Now, screw the lid on the top, and this is the most important part: LABEL IT: “Elderberry elixir, <date>, and what its for if you’re forgetful.” Give it a good shake, and leave it somewhere prominent that you can shake it once a day or so. After six weeks, its ready. Strain it out and pour it into a pretty bottle. Its shelf-stable for a couple of years.

Dosage: upon first sign of getting sick, start taking about a quarter teaspoon every couple of hours.  Take it until all signs of sickness are gone. If you do actually get sick (which is rare but with these bugs going around right now, its happening), keep taking it. As often as you can muster.

elderberry 2

Elderberry Chutney

(in which I get a bit bossy)

Gathering with friends is only fun if its an enhancement of gathering alone. Because alone, gathering is a holy experience. You sink into a rhythm, a quiet calm. Snip, pluck, drop, move, repeat. That rhythm becomes a background humm, that turns into a moving meditation. By the time you emerge from it, your bag is full, and problems have resolved themselves in the recesses of your mind, and, most likely, your eyes are a shade brighter than they were before*. I do this so often that I had forgotten how nice it was to have company. Especially company that gets as excited about happening upon a bounty as I do. Like when Emily and I were out looking for currants a couple of weeks ago and just happened upon a big, heavy mama elder tree so laden with berries that the branches hung low to the ground.

By the time we left, my backpack was so full and heavy that the ones on top started crushing the ones on the bottom and the juice started seeping out the bottom of my backpack, down my back, onto my pants. The top of my pants, by the time our walk was over, were stained blue. I think this would go into the category of ‘forager and herbalist problems’. And I’d guess that, if you see someone out in the world and the back of their pants, from waistband to butt, have a slight purplish tinge, then you know what happened, and you can throw them a high five and say ‘what’s up, elderbutt!’.

But back to those berries. There are lots of reasons to go out and find some elderberries this year. The first is, of course, elderberry elixir (or syrup). You MUST make a batch (if you cant, then you should probably buy some, as a medicine cabinet devoid of elderberry preparations is like a fortress devoid of a wall). Your immune system will thank you, as will the rest of your family when they never get sick again. As will your cabinet, for finally feeling complete (cabinets are known to be very insecure).

The second is this chutney. There are plenty of other things you CAN do with a big batch of elderberries, from jams to wines, to pies, to juices, but as far as I’m concerned, this chutney is the business. Its best application is on top of something bread-like, like oat cakes, alongside something tangy, like goat cheese. It makes lovely hors d’ouvres when you have people over, but it’s even nicer for a summer lunch, with a bottle of something crisp and cold (Ginger beer. Definitely ginger beer.) and a nice shady spot outside. Bring some crackers, bring some cheese, and a knife, and a little container of chutney. Take a cracker, then a slice of cheese, then a dollop of chutney, and munch on it while you survey what’s around you and listen to the birds chirp and the bees buzz. And then lie back and relax, and let all those little elderberries go to work strengthening your immune system, improving your circulation, tonifying your blood, and generally making you stronger and more resilient. And reflect, with a full belly and a full heart, on how you are ingesting something from the land around you, and what that means for your soul, as a whole, to be connected to the earth, and a part of the life cycle. And if you feel like it, maybe even do all of this with a friend.

Elderberry Chutney

5 cups elderberries

1 cup elderberry juice

2 onions

1 cup raisins

1 apple, peeled and chopped into small cubes

2 cups apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 tsp coriander

1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 inch ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp mustard seed

2 tsp salt

2 cups sugar

1 1/3 cup sucanat

In a big pot, put all of the ingredients, then turn on the heat and bring it to a boil. Reduce to simmer immediately, and do so for about 3 hours. Once the liquid has reduced dramatically (you still want SOME, but not a soup), and the whole thing looks like a big mushy mess, sterilize your mason jars. Spoon the hot chutney into your hot jars, leaving a half inch space at the top. Seal with fresh lids, and process for 15 minutes in a hot water bath. They’ll keep for a year. Refrigerate once opened.

 

*Not to give too much of an impression that wildcrafting is an idyllic experience- it’s not. You get stratched up, scuff knees, ruin favourite skirts, break nails, get sharp things under nails, get whacked in the face by branches, bitten by ants and spiders and bugs and scared by rattlesnakes. You come home with dirt in places you didn’t think it could reach, and twigs in your hair. In other words, it’s really fun.

Elderflower 1

Elderflower cordial

(dancing on the edges of things)

I remember the day I first fell in love with the elderflower: it was a hot Glaswegian summer day. I was sitting on my favourite grassy knoll, in the shade of a big craggy old hawthorn bush, with a bounty. All of my adventures involved a bounty of some kind, be it wood sorrel (no plant was safe), wild blackberries, or, in this case, chocolate chip cookies and soda. My soda of choice was usually sparkling apple cider, but, on that day, they were out of stock, and right next to that empty spot was sparkling elderflower.

It sounded old; like something my grandparents would have drunk years ago, before the war, on a sweltering hot August afternoon. Reasoning that Marks and Spencer never stock anything that doesn’t taste good, I bought it, placed it carefully in my backpack, then jumped on my bike.

Few things in life are as carefree as summer holidays when you’re young: two infinite-seeming months that stretch into the orange sunset, where the days last until 11pm (in Scotland at least) and the sound of sprinklers unleashed on front lawns ran into the late evening, with the squeals of delight carried on the smell of cut grass permeated the warm air that drifted in through the open windows. Between that yellow-orange glow and smell of hot grass, in the filing cabinet of my memories, on the other side of wild berries swollen, heavy, pregnant with purple juice, is the KCHHHHH sound of opening a bottle of elder fizz on a grassy knoll, with my bike, and an Agatha Christie book.

Elder flowers are fairy flowers. They dance on the edges of fields and woods and on the edges of worlds. Even their smell is somewhat lovely and somewhat pongy, at the edge of what’s normally considered ‘nice’. Glance through the shadows cast by those dancing umbels and, if you’re not really paying attention you can hear laughter and singing. True story. A day spent gathering elderflowers will cast you out of time somewhat. I like to think of this as a good thing. Not only that, but the tree in itself is a veritable pharmacy- the leaves and twigs make great blood moving salves, the flowers and berries are edible, and the berries are pretty much the best thing ever for flu season. So gather a ton of flowers (making sure you leave enough to turn into berries too!), and bring them home in a paper bag. Set aside some especially pretty umbels to dry for a flu-season tea, and then turn the rest into cordial. Because anything you need to do with elderflowers (except fritters) can be done with a cordial. Custards, drizzles, cocktails, meat glazes, and fizzes all stem from this little workhorse. Then make yourself some fizz, kick your feet up, watch the light change, and let yourself be transported back to the edge of a dream, where you found the flowers in the first place.

Elderflower cordial

2 cups elderflowers, removed from stems (roughly, don’t drive yourself crazy, just try and get most of them off) and de-bugged

6 cups sugar

5 cups water

Juice of 3 lemons

 

Bring the water and sugar to a boil and then remove from heat. Add the elderflowers and leave to cool. Heat up once more, adding the lemon juice, and allow to cool overnight, then strain out the flowers, squeezing to make sure you get all the syrup out. Pour into bottles and refrigerate. It’ll last months in the fridge.

 

Elderflower fizz

serves 2 gluttons, and 4 normal people

1/4 cup elderflower cordial

juice of 1 lemon

1 large bottle of sparkling water

 

Put all the ingredients in a decanter or big jar of some sort, add some ice, stir gently, and serve.

 

I’m submitting this post to the Wild Things roundup over at Hunger and Thirst for wild flower month!

 

juniper white sage incense

Holy smoke

Lately, I’ve been too restless to get anything useful done. In my mind there are these lists of things to do. Newsletters and website updates and blog posts and dealing with traffic tickets (*cough*) and parking tickets (*cough*) and returning phonecalls. I think it’s the coming spring; I want to be outside so much that all this other stuff makes my brain short-circuit. The words all swim together and stop making sense. Cursors blink on white pages and minute hands tick by and become hour hands and I’ll type a sentence and delete it then go to the kitchen for another snack and a cup of tea. On Wednesday, instead of repeating the process, I went to the Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica with Carly. Early. While it was still cold, and while the day was still yawning awake. I’m giving her cooking lessons, so each week she’s armed with a list, and each Thursday night we get together and I unleash my inner dictator while she does exactly as I say*.

As we were picking some very handsome carrots, she mentions that she wants to buy some white sage to ‘cleanse’ her apartment, and asks if I believe in that stuff. And it got me thinking. Because although there are plenty of people who see these things the way I do, my opinions aren’t necessarily the most popular in a city where people talk about ‘energy’ like everybody should understand what it is. But Carly was obviously asking me because of my superior intellect and rational thought process. So I did what any normal human being would do with an opinion that might counter that of others: I’m putting it on the internet. So, a bit more about smoke, smudging, incense, clearing bad energy, and all that stuff…

Smoke is sacred. Look at the way smoke from incense curls through the air, fluid, like water or fire, shapeshifting and changing and bringing that scent with it. It’s hypnotic, it reaches into stagnant corners, it can alter minds and intoxicate senses. But when it comes to ‘clearing bad energy’ as an isolated function, I think this is a belief that has rolled over into our time from the dark ages**.

To understand this, we have to know a bit more about what this ‘bad energy’ is, what needs to be cleared in the first place. Back when pathogens were unheard of, sickness was often thought to come from ‘evil spirits’. Great ceremonies were made to get rid of said ‘evil spirits’ and herbs were often burned to aid in the process. Fast forward 2 thousand years and people are burning herbs to ‘clear energy’ in houses and such or to perform appropriations of Native American ceremonies without fully understanding what’s going on. Evil spirits, back then, were airborne pathogens. Burning aromatic plants is fantastic for killing these airborne pathogens. If you’ve got a bunch of people in close quarters, smoke is great to have around- burning frankincense in a church, for example, or hinoki wood in a temple. Palo santo, that treasured Ecuadorian wood, myrrh, white sage, juniper, mugwort. The list is long, and effective. Having these herbs around to burn when someone’s coming down with something is really useful. Having them just to burn in general because they smell good and because smoke is pretty is fine as well. And yes, you can use them in ceremonies to ‘clean’ the energy of a space, but it doesn’t need to be a specific type of herb, or something that someone else has deemed ‘sacred’, and it doesn’t even need to be smoke in the first place, if that is your purpose.

Ever walked into a place and it just felt weird? Ever had something horrible happen in your house and you just want to clear the walls of those memories or the space of lingering horrible-ness? When it comes to getting rid of that kind of thing, few things beat salt. Plain old fashioned salt, a little sprinkled in the corners, will get ‘bad energy’ out of a place quicker than you can say BOO. Open all the windows and chase out the stuff you don’t want with a broom or by clapping your hands but most of all with your intention to get rid of it. Then, close the windows and sprinkle salt in each corner, intentionally (whatever your intention is). Let me be clear- I did say that you can use smoke, but the smoke in itself isn’t what’s going to chase out the stuff you don’t want. YOU are. The smoke isn’t powerful, the person guiding the smoke is powerful. Clearing a space is an active endeavour, not something that happens by default because stuff is burning.

White sage is overused. Even in this area where it actually grows it’s overused. Walk down Hollywood boulevard or the Venice boardwalk and you’ll see stoners selling piles of smudge sticks for people to buy, bring home, clear the energy of their houses, and do their own ceremonies with. White sage itself IS sacred to one tribe in our area (it has a very small growing range) and its so sacred that they burn one leaf at a time, not massive smudge sticks. Sacredness, with plants, is something that happens, not because someone else deems it so, but because of the connection you have to that plant. The fact of the matter is that any plant can be sacred, any ceremony can be meaningful. You can burn rose petals and have an effect on your space just as much as you would with sage leaves.

When it comes to a sick room, however, smoke excels. On its own. As a force in itself. Those compounds that smell so good are often antiviral and antibacterial and in inhaling them, you breathe them directly into your respiratory tract, which then goes directly into your blood stream, and before you know if you have all these little fighter compounds in your blood and in your lungs. When one of us is sick at home, we’ll burn a combination of things- my favourite is white sage and juniper (which grow around here and thus are easier to come by, cheaper, and more sustainable), but frankincense smells pretty darn amazing too. There are tons of other burnable resins available commercially, and other things you can try with what you have around. My recipe for sage and juniper incense is ridiculously simple- it’s not a complex scent or kyphi, but a simple mix of herbs with medicinal properties for the purpose of killing airborne pathogens and keeping folks healthy. But, as I’ve mentioned before, medicinal doesn’t need to mean gross, or single-purposed. You can burn it anytime, for any purpose, it’s all about the intention.

Also, for more information about sacred smoke and making your own incense, please see Kiva’s recent article. I’ve been lucky enough to try her hand-made incense and it’s mind-alteringly intoxicating. That right there, is sacred stuff…


 White Sage-juniper incense

charcoal discs

1 part juniper berries

2 parts white sage leaves

1 part pine resin (I get mine from the tree in my front yard which is an araucaria not actually a pinus)

 

In a pestle and mortar, grins up the juniper berries. Add the sage leaves and pine resin, and grind it all until it’s a pretty even consistency.

Light a charcoal disc and wait for it to be hot, then sprinkle your incense over the top. Inhale. Walk around the house letting the smoke get into the corners. If someone is sick, let them inhale the smoke, brush it through sick person’s hair, then leave it for the smoke to fill the space.

 

 

*I think I missed my calling. I’m a very good dictator. You can refer to me as The Chairman from now on.

** Speaking of which, did you know there’s a flat earth society?