Well friends, flu season is here. And, as many of you know, it's a particularly bad one. Thankfully, there are many herbal allies that can help us stay healthy and avoid illness, comfort us if we do get sick, and help us feel better more quickly.
Here are the two time-tested, simple remedies I rely on the most to stay well in the winter:
Black Elder, Sambucus nigra, is a beautiful, tall shrub that grows throughout North America. Walking through the woods in June or July, you can identify her by her woody stems and giant umbels of delicate white flowers. These flowers are a lovely, gentle diaphoretic, meaning they encourage the body to sweat out toxins and can help to bring down a fever. The flowers can be tinctured in alcohol, but in my opinion the best way to take them is as a tea. The hot drink will further encourage sweating and help you stay hydrated at the same time. And, of course, a hot cup of tea is always comforting when you aren't feeling well.
By the end of the summer, the flowers give way to clusters of black, juicy berries. Elderberries are very high in antioxidans and are a strong anti-viral. Taking elderberry regularly is an excellent way to keep the immune system strong, and it may help to shorten the duration of the flu if you catch it.
Pro tip: if you want to collect these berries from the wild, you have to be fast, because they are a total delicacy to the animal kingdom. I have a native species of Elder growing near me (Sambucus canadensis), and I can never get to the berries before they're gone. Side note: be careful not to eat too many raw elderberries, as it makes some people ill.
I typically order dried elderberries from Mountain Rose Herbs in the fall to make my winter batch of medicine. If you have a nice health food store nearby, I'm sure you can find them there, too.
Although the berries can be tinctured, I prefer to make a delicious syrup from them. It's definitely much easier to get children and others not inclined toward the intense flavor of tinctures to take it every day. Another benefit is that while tinctures take about six weeks to brew, the syrup can be ready in just a few minutes.
I've been tweaking this recipe for a few years now, and I'm pretty happy with the result. The only really essential ingredients are the elderberries, water and honey - the spices and orange peel add a nice warming touch and a little extra medicine. I take the syrup straight by the spoonful, but it also makes a nice drink mixed into sparkling water. Or hey, you could mix it into a cocktail, too. Elderberry mules, anyone?
Here's how to make the syrup:
2 cups water
1/2 cup elderberries
1 tbsp grated or thinly sliced ginger
1 tsp whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2-3 star anise pods
1 tbsp orange peel
1 cup honey
1. Add the water, elderberries, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, anise, and orange peel to a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by half.
2. Strain the liquid and mix in the honey until dissolved. Bottle and keep in the fridge for up to a few weeks. Take 1 tbsp a day for immune support, and 3-4 tbsp a day when you are ill or feel a sickness coming on.
Fire cider is a folk remedy that was first cooked up by the great herbalist Rosemary Gladstar many years ago. It has since become one of the most shared, cherished and popular herbal recipes of all time.
A mix of warming, nourishing, anti-viral foods, fire cider is incredibly simple to make and can help to knock out a virus before it takes hold in your system. Whenever I detect that little nagging feeling of illness in my throat, I do a quick shot of fire cider as soon as I can to help scare it off.
While it's an effective remedy, it's not for the faint of heart. There really is a lot of fire in this cider, and the intensity is not for everyone! In fact, it warms you up so much that I sometimes take a dose right before I have to go out into the cold.
Here is Rosemary's classic fire cider recipe:
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh horseradish root, grated
1/4 cup chopped fresh garlic
1/4 cup chopped or grated fresh ginger root
Cayenne pepper, to taste. You can use fresh or powdered. Remember that a little goes a long way!
Honey, to taste.
Raw apple cider vinegar
Add the onion, horseradish, garlic, ginger and cayenne to a jar and cover with apple cider vinegar. Let this mixture sit for about 4 weeks, shaking up once a day, and then strain. Warm up the liquid and mix in honey to taste, then rebottle. Stores well if kept on the counter, but will last longer if kept in the fridge. Take a shot glass full when beginning to feel ill, or every day as a tonic if desired.
You can take a few liberties with this recipe, if you like. Adding anise pods, turmeric, orange peels, cloves, allspice, cinnamon...all great options to put a bit of a twist on the original.
Stay well out there, everyone!