Dining

Elderberry Power

Guess which tree Hippocrates called his "medicine chest."

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Thursday, February 09, 2012
Photos By Kate Kerivan
Elderberries are "the ultimate local food"

Your body is achy. Your stomach feels just-not-right. You are getting sleepy... and it's only 11 a.m. Then it hits you: you're getting sick. But what can you do? Take vitamin C and rest? Drink lots of liquids? It feels as if it's almost no use. It will soon overtake you... unless you cross paths with a magical little berry that has proven anti-viral properties. As luck would have it, the plant grows natively in New England.

Go and get yourself some elderberries.

Elderberries are not a new fad—they've been used for centuries in Europe, and were a staple in New England kitchens until a few decades ago. Used for jams, pies and cordials, the tea or syrup was taken at the first sign of a cold or flu. As far back as 400 B.C., Hippocrates found so many uses for them that he called the elder tree his "medicine chest."

The plant was so popular on early New England farmsteads that, says Robert Henderson in his book The Neighborhood Forager, "Because of its variety of uses, elder bushes became a part of many homestead plantings, often growing alongside lilacs, forsythia and apple trees. We can still find ancient elder bushes on abandoned farmsteads..."

The berries have been studied for their anti-viral qualities. The pigments that give color to the elderberries and flowers are antioxidants called anthocyanins, which encourage the body to make cytokines, vital to our immune system. The berries enhance our body's immune response so much that the over-the-counter syrup Sambucol, derived from elderberries and sold in local pharmacies, was shown in one study to be effective against 10 strains of the flu virus.

Perhaps the elderberry had a bad marketing manager a few generations back, because it is truly the ultimate local food. Whatever the reason for its decline in popularity, local farms are beginning to bring it back. Scott Farm in Dummerston grows a small amount of these berries, and Cheshire Farm in Cheshire, N.H. sells elderberry syrup in small batches. For most of your elderberry syrup needs, though, Honey Gardens in Ferrisburg, Vt. is currently the major distributor; its syrup can be found in most natural food stores in the area.

In our own Pioneer Valley, a woman with a true passion for wild plants and animals has been working with elderberries, and other berries, since 2005. Kate Kerivan at Bug Hill Farm bought land in Ashfield seven years ago and assessed the native, scrubby plants. The land is described as "marginal," with a 1,700-foot elevation and poor drainage, but she wanted to turn it into a farm.

"I looked at what wanted to grow here naturally and saw decades of old plantings of currants and native high bush blueberries," Kerivan recalls.

She wanted to work with the land, rather than imposing foreign crops, so she pursued berries of all kinds. Today, Bug Hill Farm produces black currant cordial, berry jams, elderflower presse, and several other berry-based tonics and elixirs.

This year the farm is amping up production by planting 1,000 new bushes of aronia, honeyberry, and sour cherries, as well as more blueberries, currants and elderberries. Kerivan plans to produce a juice blend that's high in antioxidants. She also hopes to pursue her farm winery license.

On the fifty-acre farm, land is managed so as to encourage native pollinators, and a variety of sustainable land management methods are used to encourage wildlife. Kerivan holds a master's degree in science in conservation biology from Antioch College, and enjoys applying it to her farm practices.

Although much of her focus is on black currants and their nutritional values (they have higher levels of antioxidants and vitamins than almost any other fruit), Kerivan cultivates elderberries as well. She soaks and strains the flowers of the elderberry bush, which some research claims have higher nutritional qualities than the berries, to make an elderflower presse. It's a sweet concoction that can be added to seltzer or to a liquor drink. According to Kerivan, it's like drinking a meadow.

You can find Bug Hill Farm products at local cooperatives and on the farm's website, www.bughillfarm.com. To make your own elderberry tea at home, buy the dried berries in bulk at a natural food store and steep them. Pour hot water over 1 or 2 teaspoons of dried berries per cup and steep for at least 20 minutes, or until the brew reaches a dark color. Add honey to sweeten, and get better soon!?

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