The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Elderberry Syrup with Ginger, Cinnamon, and Clove: A Powerful Medicine to Keep Sickness Away September 10, 2014

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

It is that delightful time of year again, when the berries of the fall ripen, when the pumpkins grow orange on their vines, and when the elders are literally loaded with berries.  The elderberry tree is a fascinating plant, rich with mythology and magic.  The word “elder” of course has multiple meanings, but I like to think of this plant as my elder in a literal sense, that I can sit at the feet of the elderberry tree and learn much from her wisdom.  We were blessed this year with a bumper crop of these delightful elderberries, and I set to work making a medicinal syrup (I like to call it Elderberry Elixir) to aid in immune system support for the winter.  Last year when I made this syrup in September it went bad by the time January rolled around, so this year I got smart and decided to can it for longer-term storage.

 

You can make this recipe with dried berries instead of fresh ones.  Fresh elderberries have been reported by some to cause an upset stomach, but when you dry them or cook them they are perfectly fine and highly medicinal.

 

My herb teacher, Jim McDonald, taught me that Elder is particularly useful for the kind of immune system support one needs to prevent viruses from replicating throughout our bodies–the elder provides support to block that kind of replication.  It has a host of other health benefits, such as a high amount of flavenoids and for general support for colds, reducing the amount of time one needs to get through the sickness.  This Elderberry Elixir is a great and tasty way to take such medicine.  Jim has a fantastic write up on elder (both flowers and berries) on his site that I highly recommend you read! Grieve’s herbal has a complete listing for elder online here.

 

One of the reasons I prefer to pick my own berries is that it allows me to develop a relationship, hopefully over a period of years with many visits, with the elder as a species but also as an individual tree. Learning to find your own medicine if you are able, and spending time just sitting with those trees, seeing how they grow, picking their fruit and giving thanks, perhaps leaving an offering, is a critical part of herbal practice.  The plants are our teachers, our allies, and they respond better to us when we establish a relationship.  I kinda see it like the difference between having a conversation with a stranger vs. a very close friend–if you end up having a 20 min conversation with someone you just meet, you might have a good conversation, get to know the person a bit, learn a bit about their life. But if you ended up having that same 20 min conversation with a person you knew well, that conversation would be much different, likely much deeper.   Working with the plants themselves is a lot like that–the stronger of a connection you develop with a particular plant species over time, the more effective of a medicine it is going to be for you.  Elder is one of those plants that is quite abundant throughout most of the US, and its worth seeing her out and sitting at her roots and learning from her.  She has powerful, potent medicine for us, and many other lessons to teach as well.

Elderberry Elixir

Ingredients:

Fresh or dried elderberries (you can get dried ones from Mt. Rose Herbs).  The recipe is based on ratios, so you can get as many as you want of these. I prefer the fresh, but not everyone can get to them.

Fresh ginger, 1 TBSP per cup of fresh berries / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Cloves, 1/4 teaspoon per cup of berries / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Cinnamon: 1-2 teaspoons per cup of berries (depending on your taste) / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Honey: 1/2 cup per cup of berries / per 1/4 cup dried berries

Water enough to cover the berries

 

Instructions

1.  Remove your berries.  You  will have bunches and bunches of awesome elderberries after you go picking (or you will have the dried ones ready to go). One of the best ways to remove elder is to start by freezing the berries.  If you freeze them, they will come off super easily, and freezing will save you a lot of processing time.

Pulling off frozen berries

Pulling off frozen berries

2.  Measure your berries and add water to cover. Measure out your berries and add an appropriate amount of water to cover them up.

3. Prepare your other ingredients (except honey, that comes later). You will want to chop your ginger very fine.  You can use whole cinnamon sticks and cloves if you want as everything will be strained.  I like the powders because I think I get a better extraction that way. Add your ingredients to the pot.

You can use a food processor to quickly prepare ginger

You can use a food processor to quickly prepare ginger

Look at those lovely ingredients!

Look at those lovely ingredients!

4.  Mash up your berries and simmer your ingredients for 1-2 hours.  The longer you simmer your ingredients, the better extraction you’ll get of everything.  I like to cook this a minimum of two hours.  After you’ve cooked it that long, let it cool on the stove for a while (likely another 30 min to an hour).

Mashing berries

Mashing berries

This is a very good sized batch!

This is a very good sized batch!

5.  After it cools, use a strainer strainer to strain out the seeds, cloves, ginger and other “hard” materials.  If you are canning it, you don’t want to let it get too cool.

Strained syrup

Strained syrup

6.  Add honey.  Add your honey to the syrup at this point.  You can also choose to add honey to taste later in the process if you are using raw honey and want to preserve its natural enzymes.  I added my honey then canned it, so I did lose some of the raw honey benefit, but my syrup will stay good for a very long time, so I decided the trade off was worth it.  I could have canned or froze it without the honey, and added it in as I was taking it.

7.  Select a preservation method. I chose to hot water bath my elixir, mainly because when I made this last year at this time, I just stuck it in the fridge and then when I really needed it, it had gone moldy.  It will keep in the fridge for about 3 months, but that isn’t going to get you through the whole year till the elderberries are in season again.  So I would suggest either canning it or freezing it.  I chose to hot water bath can it–I followed instructions online for canning elderberry juice (1/4 headspace; 15 minute hot water bath processing time). The elders are very tart and contain a lot of acid, so the recipe is a safe one for hot water bath canning.

Ready to can the syrup!

Ready to can the syrup!

 

There you have it–a powerful medicine from a wonderful plant ally.  In terms of dosage, you want to take 1-2 tbsp of this a day; even more if you feel sickness coming on.  Its not “medicine” in the traditional pharmaceutical sense, so you can take a lot if you’d like.  I usually stick to the 1-2 tbsp per day and find that works quite well for me!

 

Finding the Balance in Providing One’s Own Sustenance: The Time-Intensive Example of Canned Corn September 13, 2013

I’ve not been blogging as much as I did a few months ago for a simple reason–the harvest is upon us.  Starting with the black raspberries in June to seeking out wild mushrooms the start of apple and autumn olive season in early September (I will blog on both of these soon!), I’ve been harvesting and preserving food at a feverish rate. One of the things I wanted to spend time talking about today is finding the balance of time and energy to work to preserve food.

 

In my last post, I talked about the sacred relationship that one is able to develop when one grows one’s own food–this sacred relationship is built over time and with much effort and love.  Today I want to spend more time talking about the pragmatics–the sheer work–involved in being self-sufficient, even in limited ways.

 

A few years ago, I went what I called “tomato independent.”  This meant that, at minimum, I was going to grow and preserve all the tomato products I needed through the year. This is my third year as “tomato independent” although since a blight got a good chunk of my tomatoes this year, I did break down and buy some from local farmers to make sure I had enough. Now I’m trying to expand my independence to other foods I eat a lot (egg independence, jam independence, herb independence, and so forth).  The challenge is, each time I add a new thing, I add a substantial amount of new work. Because here’s the truth–growing and preserving food is hard yet rewarding work, just as any other relationship-building is hard work. Any kind of preservation takes dedication and commitment.  It can be tiring and exhausting, especially if you are trying to do it at the end of the day after you’ve worked full-time at your career (like I am). But my thinking is this–I need to learn these skills because they will be needed soon, and I need to be in a place to teach others how to do these things (again, I’ll reference John Michael Greer’s new Green Wizardry book, who argues that we need “green wizards” who can do these things to help us transition into a post-peak oil world).

 

This isn’t to say that the work isn’t important or valuable–it certainly is. But for someone who spent the better part of her adult life hitting the books to get advanced graduate degrees, and now, grading student writing and teaching in the classroom, its work that requires a different perspective on time.

 

Example: Canning Corn

I’m going to illustrate the hard work of food preservation with a recent and unexpected bounty of corn.  My neighbor has a few rows of corn planted at his farm–he had way too much. Last week, he said that I was welcome to come down and pick some corn after I indicated that I was really interested in canning some of it. I went down to his house and I picked for maybe an hour, and came back with a car-load of corn.

So much corn!

So much corn!

Now, this is a LOT of corn. Probably 200+ ears. I ended up using about 1/3 of this corn for my canning, and the rest went to two other families for their own corn preservation. So I’m going to walk you through the process of canning 20 pints of fresh corn–and the time it takes!

First, I spent about an hour and a half shucking the corn and cutting it off the cob. My chickens came and ate the cobs (and I put the rest into their coop to compost).  When I was done, I had a ton of corn.

Corn ready for canning!

Corn ready for canning!

Next, I spent another hour loading the canner, sterilizing the jars, setting up my towels and tools, and following my instructions to prepare the corn for adding to the jars (which involved adding 1 cup of water for every four cups corn, bringing it to a boil, and  boiling it for 10 minutes).

When the jars and corn were ready, I spent 30 minutes ladling the corn into the jars, making sure they were all full, wiping the rims, sealing them back up, and adding them back to my canner.

Corn is a low-acid food, and it requires pressure canning.  I was canning pints, so this was a 55 minute pressure can (10 psi, for those of you who have worked with a pressure canner before). My canner took just under an hour to reach 10 psi, and by that time, it was late and I was tired.  I spent the next hour and a half monitoring the canner to make sure it stayed at or slightly above 10 psi.  It was now well past 11pm, so I set my alarm for 2 hours later so that I could get up and pull the jars out after the canner was finished naturally depressurizing (which I did around 1am).  Here are my 20 pints of canned corn.

Canned corn!

Canned corn!

So from start to finish, including my “getting up in the middle of the night” time, I probably spent 6 hours on this process.  I got home from work, immediately went to the neighbors’ house, and then continued on till the wee hours of the night till I was done.  All this was done for 20 pints of fresh corn (which I will enjoy IMMENSELY in the winter months and which will be much more tasty and healthy than anything I could buy in the supermarket).  This is all very much worth it.  But it does beg the question–how am I going to balance work with homesteading activities?  I am really starting to see why (as I described in my previous post) Laura Ingalls and her family spent all their time preserving food.  The work of self sufficiency is a full-time job, and holding down a full-time job to have my land/home to be self-sufficient….the math just doesn’t add up.  Its a balancing act that is difficult.

 

Managing Time for Food Preservation

I guess if I have any words of advice it would be this–if you have to make decisions about what you will be preserving, think carefully and make sure you get the most out of your limited time.  So let’s look at the options:

1) Freezing is much quicker than canning, but it does require that one have a continuous supply of electricity (and out here on the edges of Metro Detroit, that isn’t always the case).  I don’t do much freezing at all because its depending on the system, and the system, more and more frequently, can’t handle the strain and we go for 2-3 days several times a year without power.

2) Canning is my go-to food preservation method. It takes a lot of time, so I limit my canning usually to only a few low-acid foods, or find ways to can low-acid foods in high acid environments (like say, pickles). Canned foods will keep for years and everything but the lids are reusable (apparently there are completely reusable lids out there too, but they are quite expensive and I have already invested a ton of $$ in jars this year!)

3) Drying is my other go-to food preservation method. I like to make fruit leathers, dry kale chips, and do dried tomatoes/herbs/fruits. Right now, I’m using a little electric dehydrator, but next year, its my plan to build a solar dehydrator so I can stop using the electricity to preserve these foods. I store my dried foods in canning jars because that keeps the moisture out!

4) Fermenting is another area that I’m just starting to explore. I made some dandelion wine, which is still in process, and I’ve also got a batch of sauerkraut that finally worked out (after 4-5 failed attempts). So these are small steps into the world of fermentation…I want to try making my own miso next.

All of these methods take varying degrees of work–and finding the balance of being able to preserve your foods and do some homesteading/self-sufficency and still hold down a career (all while being single) is a really tough thing indeed!

The Importance of Time Investment

I want to close by discussing the value of time.  My canned corn took no less than 5 hours of time–and I believe that’s time well spent.  Could I just got to the store and buy mechanically canned corn for less than $1 per can? Sure, but that changes my relationship with my food quite a bit.  It means that I’m purchasing and supporting a system that I no longer have faith in.  So, like everything else, how we spend our time is an important thing–by spending this time on corn, I’m making the clear choice of what has value to me.  This is no different than taking the time to support one’s spiritual path, and develop good relationships with our communities and landscapes.  What we value is reflected in how we spend our time.

 

Summer Solstice – Celebrating the Longest Day of the Year June 22, 2013

The Summer Solstice, known in the druid tradition as Alban Heriun/Hefin, is one of my favorite holidays (ok, I say that about every holiday).  But really, its a wonderful time of year because everything is growing and in full bloom!  I wanted to post about some of the activities that I typically do on the summer solstice, yesterday being no exception!

First, I think its critically important to make time on each of the eight holidays.  I take the full day off (and I am lucky that my union contract stipulates that we get holidays off, regardless of religious path).  So I am able to devote a full day to celebration eight days a year.  I have heard of others who are willing to switch days with people who celebrate holidays of other faiths (such as swapping the Spring Equinox off in exchange for working Easter).  Even if you can’t get a full day off, try to take a good portion of it off, and try to be alone for at least part of that time for relaxation.

 

Gathering Herbs, Drying Herbs, Making Herbal Blends

The Summer Solstice is a fantastic time for gathering and drying herbs of all kinds, as nearly everything you want is in full bloom then (assuming that you are in parts of the world where the equinox is the longest day of the year).  I have been gathering and drying herbs on the equinox for seven years now, and its been one of the most rewarding experiences.  I use these herbs in tea blends, incense, tinctures, offering blends, and more.  I carefully label these as being from the equinox, and then I can draw upon their particular energetic qualities (I took it a step further and also paid attention to the planetary hour and biodynamic calendar when gathering the herbs this year).

This year, a friend and I gathered wild mint (a variety of chocolate), spicebush leaves, daisies, mugwort, motherwort, raspberry leaf, yarrow, calamus, strawberries, and much more!  I like to use the energy of the sun to dry these plants out; to do this I place them on clean cotton sheets and let the sun do its work on them.

Drying herbs

Drying herbs on patio

Herbs being dried!

Herbs being dried! Raspberry Leaf and Daisy

 

Preserving the Taste of Summer

Another activity I enjoy doing (and have been doing since I learned to can about 2 years ago) is canning something–a lot of something–and having it available in the dark half of the year.  This year, I canned a double batch of Rhubarb-Orange Marmelade (a recipe out of the Ball Book of Home Preserving, which you is an awesome book on canning).  I gathered the rhubarb from my awesome rhubarb plant and purchased some organic sugar and oranges (10 cups rhubarb, 4 oranges, 12 cups sugar + pectin is the basic recipe .  Its amazing to preserve the taste of summer in this way–and it makes fantastic gifts for the Winter Solstice :).

Jam!

Jam!

Enjoying the Day

I spend time in mediation, contemplation, and in personal ritual during any of the holidays.  It gives me the opportunity to ground, refocus, collect my thoughts, and think about where I am going and where I have been.  I like to spend hours laying in the stone circle for this purpose, but sometimes decide to venture out and hit a state or county park, losing myself deep within the trees.

Spending time outdoors!

Spending time outdoors!

 

Dear readers, what do you do to celebrate the Summer Solstice?