Elderberries and flowers

There are recipes for elderberry-based medications in the records dating as far back as Ancient Egypt where some Ancient Egyptians even had the tincture buried with them. Elder was used by Native Americans for many medicinal purposes. The fruit is high in Vitamin C. There is 6–35 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit, which accounts for up to 60% of the recommended daily intake. High in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, it makes an excellent immune boosting tonic. One study of 60 people with influenza found that those who took 15 ml of elderberry syrup four times per day showed symptom improvement in two to four days, while the control group took seven to eight days to improve. Another study of 64 people found that taking 175-mg elderberry extract lozenges for two days resulted in significant improvement in flu symptoms, including fever, headache, muscle aches and nasal congestion, after just 24 hours.

At KoruKai Herb Farm we use the fruit mainly to produce our popular Elderberry Syrup – an immune boost tonic for children (available in 100 and 200ml). We also make tincture with dried berries that are used in our Health Elixir and Throat Sprays.

The flowers make delicious herbal tea and Elderflower contains powerful antioxidants and phytochemicals that help prevent free radical damage. The herb is comprised of several essential vitamins, including Vitamin A, the B-1, B-2, and B-3 complex, andVitamin C. A combination of these vitamins and phytochemicals, like flavonoids and quercetin, give elderflower its anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antiviral properties. The flowers are also a wonderful addition to skin care products and have long been used for their softening, anti-inflammatory and beautifying properties.

Elder is widespread throughout New Zealand and it is a shame that health shops stock so many Elderberry remedies that are produced overseas.

It is easy to get a decent harvest from one bush. The berries freeze well and remedies can me made at home throughout the year. At KoruKai Herb Farm we harvest the berries on the farm and from bushes throughout Banks Peninsula. When harvesting berries, do not harvest next to the road or from non-organic properties where chemical fertilizer drift can be an issue.

Elder is sacred to many goddess traditions, especially those dedicated to the goddesses Venus and Holle. Pagan tradition holds that the spirit which inhabits the Elder tree is the Elder Mother who holds the power to work her magic in this world.

When doing my training in Herbal Medicine the Mother Elder was my assigned plant and we planted a seedling at the top of our garden in 2014 (this is now one of 4 gardens and is called “Elder Garden”), which has grown to a decent size, overlooking the herb and vegetable garden and our house.

Elder is a loose, graceful, deciduous shrub with both woody and herbaceous branches, which grows up to 4 metres tall.

Kai from KoruKai Herb Farm harvesting ripe elderberries on Banks Peninsula.

It grows wild along fence lines and is found throughout New Zealand as far as I know. It is found more patchy up north because it does like and need the winter frosts. It thrives in Canterbury and is found widespread throughout Banks Peninsula.

In spring the bushes are easy to pick out amongst other bushes with their white flower clusters.

They are also easily identified by the smell of the leaves. Once you have rubbed and smelled an Elder leaf between your fingers you can identify Elder again and again. Many long stems arise from the base, arching at the top. It is easily propagated from softwood cuttings (fresh growth from last season). If you have a bush growing on your property, prune it heavily in winter to maintain a thick form. Elder is a fast grower and aggressive competitor with weeds and herbaceous species. Cutting the whole bush to the ground every other year may be necessary to keep the bushes in check. New shoots will grow out from the root system in spring.

This forest species will grow in full sun if the soil is well tilled and watered or close to a spring. It can be planted as a hedge or alone. It also provides effective erosion control on moist sites. It doesn’t thrive in dry and bony soil.

In February and March the berries are ripening in clusters and turn black (dark purple) when fully ripe. There is only a small window to harvest the berries. Birds love the berries once they are ripe so you have to beat them or protect the bush with bird netting.

Laden elder bush with ripe, juicy berries.

The fruit also makes tasty jelly and wine. Beware that the leaves, twigs and unripe fruit of the bush have toxic properties, so please wash your hands after handling the leaves and branches and only harvest berries that are dark purple (almost black). When using the black berries for consumption, they need to be removed from the stalk. A fork works well for this or get your kids involved. The fruit needs to be cooked to be safe for consumption so make sure your kids are old enough to understand this.

Elderberries harvested on Banks Peninsula

We made tasty compote with pears, apples and elderberries. The elderberries are quite sour and tart so mixing it with sweet pears was a match made in heaven without the need for sweetener. Cinnamon also pairs well with elderberries.

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