When I was a child, my mother would make elderberry juice from berries we foraged on walks through the fields around our little town. She would bottle the deep-purple juice and save it for the winter, when she would dole it out at the first sign of sore throats and sniffles. On its own, the juice tasted mouth-puckeringly bitter (all those tannins!), but a spoonful of throat-soothing honey stirred into the hot juice transformed it into a soothing elixir!
My mother knew that elderberry juice was a traditional remedy for colds and flu, though she didn’t know why — she just passed on the healing traditions of her mother and grandmother. Indeed, the dark purple berries of the elder tree (Sambucus nigra) have been used for centuries for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Here are some potential health benefits associated with elderberries:
- Rich in Antioxidants: Elderberries are high in anthocyanins, flavonoids, and other antioxidants. These compounds help protect our bodies’ cells from oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Immune System Support: Elderberries are often touted for their potential to support immune function, particularly during cold and flu seasons. Some studies suggest that elderberry extracts may help reduce the severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms.
- Anti-inflammatory Properties: The antioxidants in elderberries may help reduce inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is linked to various health conditions, so consuming foods with anti-inflammatory properties can be beneficial.
- Heart Health: Some studies suggest that certain elderberry compounds may contribute to heart health by improving blood lipids and overall cardiovascular function.
- Rich in Vitamins: Elderberries are a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as other nutrients like potassium. These nutrients play essential roles in maintaining skin health, supporting the immune system, and promoting overall well-being.
- Antiviral Properties: Certain compounds in elderberries may have antiviral properties. Some studies suggest that elderberry extracts can inhibit the replication of certain viruses, although more research is needed to fully understand the extent of these effects.
- Respiratory Health: Elderberry syrup is commonly used to soothe respiratory symptoms, such as coughs and congestion. It is believed to have mucolytic properties, which means it may help break down mucus and ease respiratory discomfort.
Should you be in the fortunate position to have access to fresh elderberries, remember to consume them in moderation and don’t eat them raw, as they contain certain compounds that can be toxic (like cyanogenic glycosides, the alkaloid sambucine and a high level of oxalate). Cooking or properly processing elderberries is important to eliminate these potentially harmful substances. (More on the potential health benefits and risks of elderberries here.) Store-bought elderberry juice may still be high in oxalate (a compound people with kidney stones and other oxalate-related health issues should limit; more on oxalate here), but most of the other toxic compounds are broken down when the berries are cooked, rendering them harmless.
As I was recovering from Covid recently and trying to tame a nasty, hacking cough, I suddenly craved my mother’s soothing concoction. I found bottled elderberry juice at my local supermarket — hurray! — but once I saw the price tag (nearly $10 for a 16-fl-oz bottle) and the amount of added sugar (nearly two tablespoons per cup), I decided to tweak my mother’s time-honored recipe (sorry, Mama).
I brewed a strong pot of rooibos tea (another antioxidant-packed plant, caffeine-free and low in oxalate) and combined it in a pot with the elderberry juice. Even though it was diluted by more than 50%, the juice retained its delicious tang. I added mulling spices — cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, star anise, orange and lemon peel, etc. — and warmed the mixture over low heat to allow the aromas of the spices time to infuse.
Once it was ready, I decanted the mixture into a glass bottle that I stored in the fridge. From that point, I poured myself small 1/2 cups of tea every few hours, warmed it up in the microwave, and added a little honey. Maybe it was the tea, or maybe this would have happened anyway, but within days my cough became less urgent and soon stopped altogether.
Mulled Elderberry Tea
- 3 cups water freshly boiled
- 6-8 teabags rooibos here's the brand I used, though others should be just as good. Rooibos tea has a mild, vanilla-honey flavor; to help it stand up to the bold aromas of elderberry I use twice as many teabags than if I were making rooibos tea on its own
- 2 cups elderberry juice equivalent to 1 bottle of this brand
- 6 whole cloves
- 2-3 cinnamon sticks
- 2-3 star anise
- 6 cardamom pods
- 1 orange (organic, untreated) sliced into rounds -- leave the peel on
- To make the rooibos tea, boil 3 cups of water. Place the teabags in a teapot, heatproof pitcher, or jar, and top with the just-boiled water. Set aside for 10 minutes.
- While the tea is steeping, combine all the other ingredients in a small pot. Bring to a simmer (not a boil) over medium heat, then lower heat to low. Cover and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
- Line a strainer with a cheesecloth and strain the elderberry mixture into a medium-large jug with a pouring spout or a medium bowl. Add the rooibos tea and stir to combine.
- Pour the hot mixture into a clean glass bottle, seal tightly, and refrigerate. When you are ready to enjoy some tea, pour ½ to 1 cup into a heatproof cup and warm in the microwave.
- Add honey to taste; when I'm healthy, I don't usually add sweetener since the juice already contains natural & added sugar, but when I'm trying to soothe a cough or sore throat, I add about ½ tbsp of honey to ½ cup of tea and drink it in small, slow sips to allow the honey to coat and soothe my throat.