An elderberry-spiked whiskey cocktail. Credit: Courtesy of Cari Balbo

If you told me I had to pick one herb to take with me to a desert island, I would ask if I could please take two. (It can’t hurt to ask, right?) Those two would be elderberry and garlic.

If I really had to choose only one, I would very likely choose elderberry.

Elderberry is a fantastic herb for overall health and, provided you follow the simple precautions that ensure you’re correctly using an edible variety, very safe to consume.

Elderberries enhance the immune system and have high levels of antioxidants as well as Vitamins A and C. I encourage everyone to do their own research on herbs to determine what’s right for you as every individual is different. I can only speak to my own personal experience of how elderberry has worked for me. And I cannot praise elderberry enough. I love it so much I named our adopted cat Sambucus, Latin for elderberry.

Last weekend we picked up six elderberry plants from Fedco Trees for our farm. While they are plentiful in the wild, I’m excited to have a hedgerow of elders to harvest just a few yards from my kitchen. This is our first year planting at Ridge Pond Farm, and we’ve done our best to be methodical, practical and frugal this year.

We lived in Portland for almost 12 years, eight of which we spent off the peninsula on a small lot where we grew many fruit trees and other edibles. With our efforts initially focused on the medicinal herb gardens for my Ridge Pond Herbals products, we’re holding off on much in the way of fruit trees. Luckily elders are both medicinal and a fruit, so they made the list for our first year’s plantings.

I currently source my elderberries online from a great company, Mountain Rose Herbs. Until I have my own crops, I want to purchase the very best I can afford for my own use and to use in my business; the quality of their products is outstanding. I use elderberries in many ways at home, and there are countless other ways I have yet to try. In the past few years of incorporating elderberry into our diet, my husband and I have been amazed at how rarely we get sick now.

Where we both used to generally have at least one illness a year, typically a cold in winter, for the past few years we’ve hardly been ill at all, even when exposed to others who are sick or during times of high stress. The two recipes I make most often at home to keep our immune systems in great shape are elderberry tincture and an elderberry-rich syrup made from good-for-you herbs and spices.


A tincture is the term for a liquid, typically alcohol such as vodka, which soaks with an herb or herbs for some amount of time. The alcohol in the vodka extracts much of the medicinal value from the herb(s).

My elderberry tincture recipe varies but is usually as simple as covering some amount of dried elderberries with vodka and letting it sit for at least 6 weeks. When it’s ready and I want to use it, I strain out the berries, reserve the deep purple liquid in a bottle — and voila!

We take a tablespoon or two periodically to strengthen our immune systems and take it daily when we’re feeling run down or worried about getting sick. Occasionally we’ll take a spoonful straight from the bottle but more often we mix it with water in a small glass. A tastier method is mixing a bit of elderberry tincture with sparkling water and a little simple syrup (especially one made from honey).

Elderberry tincture also makes a tasty medicinal cocktail mixer. We always have Jameson whiskey on hand, and while I drink mine neat most often, Mike prefers a whiskey cocktail. This week he devised a new one made from whiskey with a bit of maple syrup, a splash of elderberry tincture, and sparkling water. The drink was delicious and beautiful to look at, the tincture giving it a lovely light mauve color in the glass.


The other way we most often have elderberries is in an herb- and spice-rich, long-simmered decoction. A decoction is the method for extracting medicinal properties from hard plant ingredients such as dried barks, roots and berries. While a tea (also known as an infusion) is made by pouring boiling water over leaves and flowers to extract the good stuff, a decoction means the harder parts of herbs are simmered for a while to get maximum benefit.

Every few weeks throughout the winter I make an immunity-boosting brew, perfect for flu and cold season. The ingredients vary according to my mood and what I have on hand, but it is always rich in elderberry.

A typical recipe would be about 2 cups total of herbs and spices to 3 or 4 quarts or so of water. A favorite mix includes (all dried) elderberries, rosehips, ginger root, cloves, cinnamon and astragalus root slices. (I never use the same amount of each herb every time, I just add what feels right to equal about 2 cups total.)

I’ll slowly simmer this mix, covered on the stovetop or in a slow cooker for a few hours, or until the liquid has reduced by approximately half. I strain the herbs and add honey to taste. This syrup stores a couple of weeks in the fridge — the more honey the longer the storage — but it never lasts that long here, as we take a small juice glass of it, straight or with water, most winter mornings when we have it available.

I am excited to begin growing our own elderberries this year. It will be wonderful to have my own berries for picking. There are so many elderberry recipes I want to try.

In addition to elderberry tincture and elderberry-rich medicinal syrup, I want to make an elderberry vinegar and an elixir made from the berries, honey and brandy. I love the taste of elderberry, the way it noticeably has enhanced my health, and the creative ways it can be added to our diet. And just wait until another time when I write about all the great things you can do with elderflowers!

Cari Balbo runs Ridge Pond Farm and Herbals in Palermo with her husband. She writes about their life in an 1830 farmhouse and starting a new farm business at As a longtime student of herbs and their many benefits, Balbo’s mission is to inspire others to integrate more herbs into their daily lives.