Elderberry Syrup: Herb for flu season

Not surprisingly in the year of a global pandemic, there is recent increased interest elderberry syrup for flu season (and any infectious disease).  In fact, recently a friend inquired about where she might find a reputable source of elderberries as she intended to make her own syrup.  Her inquiry inspired me to write about  elderberries, including a recipe and source for these wonderfully tasty berries.

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) is a tree that is commonly found throughout North America.  It makes a lovely backyard ornamental shrub that grows up to about 12′ and displays clusters of small, white flowers that turn into the characteristic deep purple berries.

Elderberry tree and flower

Elderberry Medicinal Value – Traditional

So what’s all the fuss about elderberry?  Turns out, a lot.  The elder tree/shrub has a long, traditional history of medicinal uses, and not just the berry.  Renown British herbalist and author of A Modern Herbal, Mrs. Maud Grieve, first published in 1931 and still in print today, writes extensively about uses for the leaves, bark, flowers, and berries.  Today the bark and leaves are much less commonly used – both of these tending toward being purgative or emetic in large doses – but the flowers and berries are still staples of a modern herbalist’s apothecary.

Mrs. Grieve writes that elderberries provide a diaphoretic, or sweat-inducing, effect.  She further states (in the flowery language that was customary 100 years ago) that elderberries “promote all fluid secretions and natural evacuations”. These are reasons why elderberries were originally used to treat the common cold.  The sweating could help break a fever and cool the body down, and the “promotion of fluid secretions” refers to bronchial congestion and also edema.  Elderflowers actually have a stronger diaphoretic effect than the berries, and it is not uncommon for herbalists to include the flowers in a tea designed to support those suffering from a cold or other respiratory infection that causes fever.

Elderberry Medicinal Value – Modern

Fast forward about 100 years, and we find that the science begins to catch up with the traditional use.  Braun & Cohen (2015) is one of my favorite, go-to authorities for solid, scientific evidence of herbs.  The elderberry monograph described three clinical trials (N = 30 to 60 patients) investigating the usefulness of elderberries in the treatment of influenza.  All three studies concluded that elderberries (either in syrup of a dissolvable lozenge) relieved symptoms of influenza faster than no treatment.  For example, the majority of patients who took elderberry syrup saw improvement in at least some of their symptoms after 48 hours, as compared to the control group which reported symptom relief after about 6 days.

The effective daily dose used was approximately 18 gram-equivalent of elderberry, about 15ml, three times/day of syrup.

Elderberry Syrup Recipe

There are many elderberry syrup for flu season recipes online, so I invite you to look around.  Instead of posting a new one here, I will pass along the recipe from Mountain Rose Herbs and, specifically, Tieraona Low Dog, MD, RH(AHG) (a well-respected herbalist and medical doctor) that my friend used.

Of her experience in making this recipe, my friend writes:  “I love the cinnamon accent. I also used 2 inches of fresh ginger instead of dried. The vodka went in at the end; I wanted to use brandy, but I didn’t have any. I sterilized everything and left the mason jars in the boiling water until I was ready to pour.”

elderberry syrup
Katrina’s Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry Sources

As usual, one of my trusted sources for any herb is Mountain Rose Herbs, located in Oregon.  Their herbs are of the highest quality and they have an extensive selection.  They are currently a victim of their own success, however, as demand for herbs has risen substantially during the pandemic.  At the time of this writing they can be 2-3 weeks behind in shipping orders.

If you’d like to support ‘local small business’ (and who doesn’t right now?), a little but mighty tea shop known as The Blue Monkey in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, stocks elderberries.  In fact, this is where my friend ultimately got her supply.  She reported seamless ordering and good quality product at a reasonable price.

Elderberry syrup and berries

In summary…

Elderberry for flu season?  YES, PLEASE!!!

Special thanks to my dear friend, Katrina Dodro, who shared her experience and photos with me for this article.


Grieve, M. (1931).  A Modern Herbal.

Braun, L. & Cohen, M. (2015).  Herbs and Natural Supplements, An Evidence-Based Guide. (4th Ed.).  Elsevier.

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