Elder-Sumac Syrup Time—Meet Me at the Market

Come see me at the Anne Arundel County Farmers Market holiday market this Saturday, corner of Riva Road and Harry S. Truman Parkway. The holiday market runs from 7 AM to noon, Saturdays, from Nov. 19 to December 24. I’ll be demonstrating how to make elderberry-sumac berry syrup, offering samples, answering questions, and selling the ingredients so you can make the syrup at home for you and your loved ones. (Find me on the row closest to the back parking lot, toward the center of that row.)

A rule of the market is that the products have to be grown/made in the county. I had a bumper crop of elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, varieties, “Johns” and “Adams”) this summer, so much so that I almost could not keep up with harvesting.

Fall and winter are the time to make—and take—elder syrup. Its effect on bodily tubes—the hollow, tubular stems are a “signature” of the plant—shows why: “It is an ancient remedy for opening the lungs and bringing up mucus,” says herbalist Matthew Wood in The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines. “The respiratory effect, combined with the diaphoretic capacity to open the pores of the skin and bring on perspiration, points to its use in preventing or curing recent flus, coughs, and colds. It acts both ways, to bring on perspiration when the pores are closed and the skin is red and hot, or to check immoderate sweating with a cold surface.”

All parts of the plant are medicinally active in various ways, but the berries “have a property not found in the other parts of the plant; they are used as a tonic to build up the blood and combat anemia,” says Wood. “…Dr. [Edward] Shook says the berries cleanse and gently purge the stomach and bowels, promote perspiration, remove cold, sore throat, nasal congestion, bronchial catarrh and asthma. A syrup taken at night ‘promotes pleasant perspiration and is demulcent to the chest.’”

There are many, many variations of elder syrup, including some that use fresh berries. I use dried berries and combine them with sumac (Rhus spp.), because that is the way I was taught by Suzanna Stone of Owlcraft Healing Ways in Scottsville, Va. Stone says the addition of sumac is a teaching of Arab, Ala., herbalist Phyllis Light. The sumac is used to astringe tissues—a good complement to the diaphoretic action of the elder. (By the way, these sumac berries—wildcrafted from smooth, staghorn or winged varieties—are not poisonous. Toxicodendron vernix, poison sumac, is in the same family—as is the cashew—but the habitat for poison sumac, with its white berries, is swamps and peat bogs, not forest edges, where you’ll see staghorn, smooth or winged sumac. In fact, if you glance to the side as you drive Routes 97 or 100, these red-berried cones are fairly visible at the edges of the woods.)

So, I hope you’ll meet me at the market. Bring your questions and perhaps we can play “Stump the Herbalist.”

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