Health Matters, May 2024


By Kathy Absascal

The elders have just started blooming on the Island. Each spring, I am a bit surprised by how many elders grow here, as they only become noticeable when their flowers appear. In the Northwest, we mostly have red-berried elders (Sambucus racemosa). The red berries are not toxic in small amounts, but are definitely nauseating, unlike the purple berried S. nigra that grow back East and can be used to make a nice syrup. The flowers of all elders, however, make a wonderful medicine. 

Historically, herbalists considered elderflowers a more useful medicine than the berries. While both are antiviral, only the elderflowers are said to be diaphoretic. Diaphoretics are used to bring on a mild sweat in fevers. That sweat cools the body, which helps bring the fever down. Elderflower tea is sweet and delicate, and is a great herb to have on hand to drink when you are coming down with a cold or some other virus. It is fabulous for children as it is pleasant and a safe medicine.

Gathering elderflowers can be a bit of a challenge, but is an enjoyable one. You will see tons of elders waving their flowers at you, but when you get closer, you will usually find them barricaded just behind a good-sized blackberry thicket or a touch too far away on the other side of a muddy ditch with a patch of tall nettles. Elders are abundant though, and despite these challenges in the end you will ultimately have no problem gathering enough flowers to last you until the elders bloom again the following spring. 

Elderflowers have an interesting fragrance that bounces back and forth between delightful and just a bit fetid. As a result, they are very popular among a whole host of spring pollinators.

I grew up in Sweden where elderflower beverages are very common. In fact, Ikea offers a very nice elderflower concentrate that is still available even after Ikea eliminated many of their Scandinavian foods. I like to have the concentrate on hand. It makes a refreshing summer drink that slakes the thirst and, like the tea, has some antiviral properties if you are getting sick. 

I consider the elderflower concentrate an important part of treating the flu. Although the saying goes “feed a cold, starve a fever,” there are studies showing that it helps to consume some simple sugars (in a healthy form) when dealing with influenza. Your elderflower drink will help lower your fever and help your immune system fight off the flu at a time when you are unlikely to want to eat. D –d 

I used to make my own elderflower syrup every year. While I have grown a bit lazy and now only gather enough for tea, I highly recommend homemade elderflower syrup. In my experience, it is stronger than the Ikea concentrate and is more golden and fragrant. The recipe is quite simple:

Gather 30 or more flower clusters (most of the flowers should be open rather than in the bud stage). When you get home, cut away the main stalk from the flower clusters. You do not want any thick stems in the brew at all. Rinse the flowers gently in a strainer and put them in a large pan or crock. Cut two lemons into thin slices and add them to the flowers. Heat six cups of water to boiling and stir in four cups of sugar. Keep stirring until the sugar dissolves. Dissolve 1½ to 2 ounces of citric acid (which you can get at Minglement) in some of the hot syrup, then add it to the rest of the syrup. 

Pour the syrup over the flowers, cover and let it stand in a cool place for 5 days. Finally, strain and bottle it. I keep my bottles in the fridge because, if the concentrate is not heat-processed, it may ferment and become fizzy in a way that I do not like. When you are ready to have a glass of elderflower drink, just add one part concentrate to 4 parts cold water. I often use sparkling water to dilute the concentrate as I find the fizziness of the final beverage delightful, whereas I am not fond of the fizziness of fermented elderflower.

Gathering elderflowers is a wonderful way to connect with plants, it provides a good reason to get out in the fresh air and enjoy the semi-rural nature of Vashon, and an opportunity to gain a stronger sense of how plants and health go well together. 

May 9, 2024

About Author

kathy I was born in Chicago, but mostly grew up in Sweden. After completing high school, I moved back to the US to attend college and graduated with a degree in neurobiology with a minor in biochemistry and French from the University of California at Berkeley. Immediately after graduating, I spent a year doing quality control testing at Chevron's pesticide factory in Richmond and then transitioned to working on a number of medical research studies. I helped conduct physician peer reviews at a San Francisco hospital and, when I eventually began looking for more challenging work, the doctors I worked with recommended that I apply to medical school. In retrospect, I should have followed their advice, but I instead decided to get a juris doctor degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. I worked as a research attorney at the California Court of Appeal for a number of years before going into private practice specializing in complex consumer litigation. As time passed, the California courts became more conservative and less receptive to consumer litigation and I found myself once again looking for a new direction. Now, I teach online classes on how to quiet inflammation. I am a professional herbalist and have written several books. You can learn more about my work and classes at TQIDiet.com