Beyond Elderberry Syrup


As you might have guessed, I am going to talk about elderberry preparations beyond syrup. But...

Nothing Fancy!

I am not going to talk about fancy preparations like jams or cordials because I have two main criteria when it comes to medicine making and taking - effectiveness and laziness.

1. Is it effective?

2. Can a lazy person make it?

When I say lazy, I mean it very affectionately. I am talking about someone like me- over committed, anxious, busy, disorganized, ADD, and well, lazy (I think we all need a little of that sometimes).

Why Elderberry Syrup?

Before we veer away from our tastiest of all remedies, I want to talk about why it is so popular.

With science to back up elderberry's potent antiviral activity, a flavor that even kids like, and an easy to take form, elderberry syrup is easily available and not too complicated to make. Elderberry is a gateway herb and syrup is the preparation of choice. Compliance is a given when elderberry syrup is the recommendation.

Elder Shrub with Elderberry

Why Not Elderberry Syrup?

Despite the wonders of elderberry syrup, there are quite a few reasons to branch out:

1. Expense: purchasing elderberry syrup is expensive. If your cold has hit by the time you use it, you need to take it several times a day. If you are prone to colds and flus, you need to take it daily during the cold and flu season. This adds up $$$. If you are making it and using raw honey, this adds up, too.

2. Making your own, while simple, is still complicated enough to turn off a fair number of clients.

3. Sugar is never a good idea when you are sick. Taking sugar knocks back your immunity. When a large portion of your medicine is contraindicated, it may not be the best option. The effectiveness of elderberry syrup is a testament to how effective elderberry really is. This is similar to an antibacterial or antifungal salve. Salves trap moisture in and create a lovely environment for the fungus and bacteria to flourish. If the herbs in your salve are strong enough, they can compensate for this. But in my opinion, it is far better to use a preparation where the menstuum itself, and other ingredients in the product, are part of the medicine.

4. Some people are particularly sensitive to sugar and should not have it at all – individuals with diabetes, alcoholism, metabolic syndrome, and sugar addiction. Children of hippies and health nuts also tend to avoid sugar (not always by choice).

Elderberry decoction is my elderberry preparation of choice. It is almost as easy to take as elderberry syrup. It is a easier to make than syrup. It is cheaper than syrup.

Which leads me to my last point:

Unripe Elderberry

The Under Rated Decoction

Western herbalists under utilize the decoction. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is the preparation of choice. For the lazy herbalist or the overwhelmed client, it is a life saver. Tinctures and syrups are not the only easy herbal preparations. Trust me! Some students and clients will even appreciate not smelling like booze while going to work.

Melissa's Super Lazy Tips to the Decoction:

1. Dedicate one pot to decoction making. This means, you don't have to wash it every time you want to make pasta. Also, it will hardly get dirty, so when you do wash it, it will be easy peasy.

2. As long as you boil or simmer your pot of herbs every day, you will not have to ditch the herbs for days. Honestly, I keep mine going for a whole week (or even a month or more in the case of a big hunk of chaga). My husband has a separate decoction pot of herbs because he likes to keep his going for months. I literally have to steal the chaga from him. He's like a toddler with a blankie. He swears it is still flavorful after months and he doesn't want to waste it. He boils it 2 to 7 times a day and has had no health problems drinking this regularly. That being said, he can eat rotten vegan food without getting sick so I do not necessarily recommend keeping your decoctions going for months at a time.

3. Herbs for decoctions can usually be simmered for 2 or more times and retain their potency. It is easy to tell when it is loosing its flavor/ potency. Once the flavor starts to dissipate, the non-lazy person can compost herbs and rinse the pot. Or even clean it. The lazy person can just add new herbs to the old herbs and simmer again. You can do this 3 or 4 times over the course of the week. If your house is cool (60sF or under), and you boil this daily once or twice a day, you can easily keep the herbs going for a whole week. If it's warmer, I usually ditch them in 3 to 4 days (after giving it a sniff test – if you have a sensitive nose and can pick up the first hint of funk, this is a very useful way of determining the shelf life of a decoction). Lest you think I have the constitution of a horse like my husband – with a vital and thriving immune system and an iron stomach – let me assure you that unless I drink elderberry decoction or infusion every day I get every virus that comes my way and I have had digestive issues since I was a colicky baby. If I don't get sick from keeping my herbs in the pot for a week, I doubt anyone will, but use your best judgment.

4. Homesteading Tip: Chickens love spent elderberries. But you can send them to the compost, too.

5. Who cares about measurement: measuring is over rated! Do give clients or friends a recipe for their own piece of mind if you feel it is necessary, but let's get real- we all have different preferences when it comes to flavor and effect. My recipe will definitely be too spicy for most people. Also, recipes reinforce the idea that this is complicated. This is not complicated. This is simple. There are no exact dosages. There are no exact amounts. Your elderberry is biochemically different from the elderberry I harvested on my land. Your body is biochemically different from mine. Obviously there is plenty of overlap, but there is also a lot of variation in how people respond to an herb and a formula and how potent an individual herb is. With the exception of toxic and heroic herbs, pretending that you need to be specific is a way of mimicking western medicine. How your body and mind and soul respond are the measures of success. It is okay to experiment. Nothing bad will happen (we are not working with lobelia or lily of the valley here). Students and clients need to trust the herbs and themselves. We are too indoctrinated in the culture of the “expert” and this causes us to place our trust and our power outside of ourselves. We are humans highly attuned to the nuances in plants. We need to trust ourselves.

6. Keep your herbs together in a cabinet in your kitchen. Preparation has to be easy.

7. When you wake up in the morning, before you even brush your teeth, get your pot of tea simmering. By the time you are done with your morning prep, your tea is ready for straining and bottling and taking with you or enjoying with a light breakfast.

8. If nights are easier, you can always simmer at night and strain and drink in the morning.

9. Decoctions are great because so many herbs and spices can be added to make very yummy teas. Cardamom, vanilla, orange peel, anise, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and medicinal mushrooms, alterative roots, or adaptogenic roots can all be added for additional effects and yum factor. Chaga, ashwagandha, rhodiola, and burdock all work well because they are relatively mild in flavor and blend well with spices.

10. The main advantage of decoctions is the simplicity of a large vessel of herbs. No more sticking your hands into tiny teapots or trying to get all of the herbs out of a French press strainer. Infusions are obviously very easy to make. It is the clean up of all of those loose leaves that can trip up some of your clients or students.

11. And finally, if at all possible, when using mason jars, do not use lids with a white coating – that contains BPA (or a BPA alternative, which is still nasty).

Elder Shrub in Flower

My Favorite Elderberry Decoctions


This decoction can keep you warm and disease free this winter. It is particularly good for Kapha types and Kapha type illness (damp, cold, heavy). It is also good for Vata types and Vata type illnesses (dry, cold, light), however, you could always add something nourishing and a little sweet like codonopsis or ashwagandha. This would make it a medicine of choice for Vata. As to Pittas, this decoction can still be helpful, especially if you go a little light on the spices. Pitta and Pitta conditions are hot, damp, and light.



Cinnamon (true cinnamon ideally)

Fresh Ginger (you can use dried ginger but it will be more heating and less tasty)

2-4 cups a day


Ideally we should be building immunity with medicinal mushrooms and astragalus during late summer and fall so that we do not get sick come winter. If you are illness prone, you need the protection of elderberry even in the summer. This formula gives you the best of both worlds. When you are acutely sick, drop the tonics like astragalus and go with an elderberry infusion (see below) or the “I Got them Winter Blues” formula. However, if you are making a strong decoction and drinking 2-4 cups spread over the day, you should not be getting sick.




Chaga (you could use other medicinal mushrooms but they are not always the most palatable and in the case of reishi need to be simmered for 8 hours)


Clove (just a pinch!)

Cinnamon (true cinnamon, ideally)

Optional: vanilla bean, anise, orange peel, ginger

A note about chaga:

We usually harvest the fruiting body of a mushroom, which makes mushroom harvesting sustainable and ethical. However, chaga is not the fruiting body but the mycelium itself. It is incredibly slow growing. There is some concern that with the chaga craze, we are over-harvesting these beautiful mushrooms. In Vermont, everybody seems to know what chaga is and they will not hesitate to whack it off trees. There is a lot of money in chaga (it sells for $35 a pound at Mountain Rose Herbs, which is the cheapest source of organic fair-for-life herbs). If you live in a cold northern climate where chaga grows and are friends with loggers, it is worth forming a relationship with them. They are cutting down the trees anyway and the chaga will die along with the tree. You could also find an herbalist who is already doing this sort of thing and purchase from them (Nancy Scarzello in upstate NY comes to mind).


I have added adaptogens (ashwagandha and codonopsis) and alteratives (burdock) to this formula, because United Statesians almost always need these as well. If you prefer other adaptogens, such as rhodiola or eleuthero, feel free to modify the recipe.






Optional: Codonopsis; spices to taste





Fresh Ginger

Vanilla Bean


Pinch of Cloves

Elderberry Infusion tastes like Chocolate

But let's say you actually prefer infusions. Or you are a hot Pitta type or you are coming down with a hot Pitta type illness. A strong elderberry infusion is almost as easy to make as a decoction and it tastes like dark chocolate. Add some peppermint and you have divinity in a cup (unless you have a tendency to be cold or hate the taste of peppermint). I tend to use 1 part elderberries to 1 part peppermint, but you can vary this according to taste. If you drink it hot, you will also enjoy the diaphoretic action of peppermint, which can help kick a cold.

In Conclusion

I will be honest. I am a very nerdy herbalist. I love reading about herbs. Looking at herbs. Smelling herbs. Drinking and eating herbs. But I do not like medicine making. Not by myself in my everyday life. I would rather sit down with a big steaming cup of tea. Water based preparations are the backbone of herbal medicine. For your clients to really come to know and love herbs, they need to see, smell, and taste the herbs, not brown liquids in a bottle. Long live the decoction!

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