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.
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
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.