Today I made black elderberry rob. This is a thick, honey-based syrup of black elderberries., used in the winter to prevent and also treat influenza. I am preparing to teach a workshop on herbs for influenza (see right) so I wanted to get some rob ready.
An English herbalist friend Lorraine Wood showed me how to make this years ago, although she made it with cane sugar. I want to follow older traditions from the time before we had cane sugar, so I am using honey.
I have wonderful local honey produced by my friend Rain the beewoman and her hives of local bees. These bees live just 3 blocks away as the bee flies and last summer they spent a lot of time in our herb garden. Now their honey is being used to make our medicine, and this seems exactly right.
So using a double boiler pan, I put the dried berries in the pan and cover them with 2-3 inches of honey, stirring to mix well. I bring the water underneath to a quiet simmer, and put a lid on the pan. Over the next several hours, I check the honey-berry mixture; slowly the elder gives up its dark red-brown goodness to the honey. I also use a clean towel to wipe off any water that has condensed on the lid of the pan, repeating this every half hour or so. When the honey is dark and rich, and the pan lid is mostly dry, I strain the honey through a sieve into a clean bottle, label and store in the frig.
Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a shrub native to Europe, with a long historical tradition of medicinal and magical use. In France in 800 AD, the king Charlemagne thought so highly of its medicine that he decreed that each family have elder growing by their house, while in Ireland, people knew that Elder was a Faery shrub, full both of powerful healing, but also, some peril. Elder branches were put by the door to protect evil from entering, and whenever the seasonal flu came around, the elderberry rob came out to fight the illness, reduce the fever and induce a sweat.
Ninety percent of my genetic heritage comes from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales ( as the family genealogist, I know these things). Recently, I have been exploring the herbal and healing traditions of the Celtic peoples of these lands. Elder is one of those medicines that go back perhaps 9000 years in the history of the Celts who migrated west into these islands.
When I have elderberries in my hand, when they are steeping in the honey on the stove, and the house is filled with the dark, complex flavor of berries and bee honey, there is a sense of coming home. I feel a long line of women herbalist healers behind me, guiding my hand and rejoicing with me in the work. Making elderberry rob connects me to my ancestral herbal traditions, to the lineage of healers, to the deep medicine of my heritage. This is good medicine.
Precautions: Our local Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) and Blue Elderberries (Sambucus cerelea) are possibly toxic and should not be used for making elderberry rob. Black elderberries can be purchased in bulk at Radiance Herbs & Massage, or bought online from Dandelion Botanicals in Seattle. You can also grow your own Black Elderberry shrub; Horizon Herbs in Oregon sells both seeds and plants.
Healing Herbs in Ireland by Paula O’Regan
The Earthwise Herbalist by Matthew Wood