making fresh elderberry syrup

Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) growing in a Portland, Oregon yard.

In late July, a friend invited me to pick newly ripened elderberries in her Portland yard.
 
She’s got two — just two! — of the shrubs growing, and she can’t keep up. Knowing how coveted they are as medicine, she didn’t want them going to waste.
 
I eagerly agreed.
 
Elderberries are a critical tool to enhance immune resilience and improve winter wellness. They’re the only plant medicine singled out in my Immune Resilience Action Guide, and were the subject of a full hour of discussion during my spring Immune Resilience Action Series. They’ve got truly substantial research supporting their efficacy at limiting duration and severity of influenza.
 
They’re also really easy to make into tasty medicine— and now is the season to do it.

A little bit about elderberries

Elder (Sambucus species) grows in temperate to subtropical climates around the world. They are technically shrubs, having multiple stems rather than a single trunk. Elders range in size from 5 feet to 20 feet, but most garden elders fall in the middle of that range.
 
The species I prefer for medicine are the ones with the black or blue berries, often Sambucus nigraS. canadensis or the Pacific Northwest’s native S. cerulea. They’re easy to grow, beautiful and so bountiful!
 
Elderberries are so beloved in large part because of the way they’re prepared: in a syrup or elixir with sugar or honey as a preservative. Not all herbs are super tasty to most palates. Elderberry syrup is a notable exception. 

Harvesting + processing elderberries

My friend’s elders were about one quarter ripe, the branches heavy with the black berries. Off one plant we harvested about one and a half gallons of fruit, from which I’ll end up with about three gallons of finished syrup.

One of two big bags of ripe elderberries (Sambucus nigra.)

I don’t consider myself a very make-y person. I’m a perfectionist and a reluctant cook, so making medicine has to be very simple or I won’t do it. (This is why the medicines I make myself are for myself and my friends, not for patients. I get the professional stuff for them.)
 
Elderberry syrup became incredibly easy once I wrapped my brain around one idea: It’s basically a strong, simmered tea of berries plus spices, preserved with sugar, honey and/or alcohol.
 
The hardest part is separating the berries from the stems. I spent an hour the first night doing that to get 8 cups. But my friend taught me a life-altering trick: Freeze the berries on their stems. I filled two baking pans with elderberry panicles, stems pointing up. What took me an hour to do at room temperature took just minutes with the frozen berries. I will do it this way forever when freezer space is available.

Preserving the harvest

As I type this post, I’ve got 8 cups of fresh elderberries simmering in 8 cups of water (use more for dried berries), spiked with a big handful of fresh ginger, three cinnamon sticks and some black pepper. After about 20 minutes I’ll turn off the heat, mash it up and strain off the liquid.
 
After that, I’ll pour the decoction into jars, add equal parts honey and/or alcohol. I also freeze some of the unamended decoction, to which I can add honey or alcohol later. That saves space, which is handy when you’re starting to run out of canning jars.
 
Any mid-proof alcohol you like will do. I prefer neutral-tasting vodka from my friends at Deep Woods Distillery. (If you find yourself in Oakridge, Oregon, say hi.) Other folks use tequila, whiskey or rum to good effect.
 
I like to use raw, local honey whenever possible. (I love what I got from Mickelberry Gardens) Because it goes in after the boiling process, you don’t lost any of its great enzymes. Honey is healing in its own right, helping with coughs and making the medicine go down.

Elderberry decoction, syrup (decoction + honey) and elixir (decoction + honey + alcohol.)

The people’s medicine

The bottom line is that making elderberry syrup is super easy and super cost effective. It’s truly a medicine of the people. If you can access berries in a yard or wild place, the only expenses are the preservatives. But even if you must buy berries, the whole process saves you hugely over buying elderberry syrup at the store. 

I strongly encourage folks to make their own. Here’s one recipe from herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, and here’s another from herbalist Dr. Tieroana Low Dog

If this all sounds like too much work, consider getting this DIY kit from my friends at Mountain Mel’s Essential Goods, an hour out of Portland up on Mount Hood. (Use the code “drorna” to get 10 percent off your order.)

Salúd!

—Dr. Orna

P.S. Is elderberry the right medicine for you? Schedule a telemedicine appointment and we’ll talk about it!

a healthier salty snack

I’ve loved popcorn since I was a small child. Maybe it was the association with movies (the watching of which became my undergraduate major.) Or maybe it’s just the combination of crunchy, salty and fatty — a flavor combination we’re hardwired to favor.

But popcorn isn’t the best way to keep your blood sugar balanced, and corn is a very common food allergen. So what’s a gal craving salty-greasy to do?

When I get a serious hankering for my beloved popcorn but it’s just not in the cards, my healthy substitution is kale chips.

Go ahead and laugh at me for being a Portland hipster. I’ll wait.

No, kale isn’t the only food out there. But it really does excel in this application. And if you have a garden, it’s easy to stay well supplied.

Kale chips take a little longer than popcorn, but they’re still a delicious salty-greasy snacking treat — with the added benefits of phytonutrients and fewer allergenic compounds.

Making kale chips is plenty easy — even for those of us who aren’t cooks. All it takes is tearing the leaves off the stems, drizzling them with olive oil and salt (I add garlic granules and some hot pepper), mixing it up with your hands, and then sticking it in the oven for a while.

The one trick is to avoid adding too many leaves to your pan. They don’t crisp as well if they’re layered too deeply. You can always make a second batch.

How to make kale chips

Ingredients:

  • A bunch of kale. (See pro tip, below.)
  • Some salt
  • Some garlic powder
  • Hot pepper or paprika to taste
  • Enough olive oil to get some on all the leaves when you mix it with your hands.

Directions:

  • Tear kale leaves from their stems and place in a roasting pan.
  • Drizzle on olive or avocado oil.
  • Add seasonings.
  • Mix it all up with your hands. Every piece of leaf should be slippery (from the oil) and a little gritty (from the seasonings.)
  • Try to space the leaves somewhat evenly.
  • Put pan into the oven, set to 415 degrees.
  • Set time for 25 minutes.
  • Check occasionally, stirring the leaves so they dry/cook as evenly as possible.
  • Remove from oven, and enjoy.

These are best when still warm.

I rarely measure seasonings. You just need enough for the leaves to feel gritty while massaging in the olive oil. When in doubt, start slow. You can always add more when the kale chips are out of the oven.

The only mistake you can make is burning the leaves. To my mind, it’s better to have a few chewy bits in among the crispy ones than to lose the whole thing. Burning makes the pan harder to clean, too. (You could get fancy and use baking parchment, but the cleanup is usually pretty easy.)

Pro tip: Kale from the grocery store or farmer’s market usually comes in bunches, and you don’t have to use it all at once! Honestly, it took me forever to figure this out. I just kept shoving more and more into the roasting pan, or dirtying a second one. Save some for next time.

Do you have favorite ways to spice up kale chips? Let me know! I’ll share these — with credit! — in a future email and on my blog.

Salúd!

—Dr. Orna

P.S. Looking for a great source of easy veggie recipes? Check out Food As Medicine, written by two of my medical-school classmates. See more of my favorite food books here.

P.P.S. If you’re looking for individualized food recommendations, my clinic is 100 percent open — and 100 percent telemedicine. If you’re in Oregon, now’s a great time to schedule.

nature is medicine: the science

I’m a big proponent of nature as a prescription — for mood, for stress, for immune resilience. It’s one of the core principles of both my practice and my profession.

(Here’s the replay video of the Vitamin N session of my Immune Resilience Action Series.)

Below is a big list of resources supporting this prescription, which I will continue to update.

Start here:

Nature is medicine

Greenspace

Gardening as connection

Looking at Nature counts

More ideas about getting your nature fix during quarantine

Great books

Physician resources