• Sara Weyland

Nature’s Immune Boosters

This article, written by medical herbalist and Walnut columnist Sara Weyland, appeared in issue six of Walnut.

Autumn brings an explosion of red, blue and purple berries to hedgerows, countrysides and even urban centres. This colourful time of year is the perfect opportunity to harvest these immune-boosting wonders for making syrups, glycerites, jellies, cordials, fruit leathers and oxymels. Most berries, including rose hips, elderberries, rowan and hawthorn are packed with antioxidants, making them ideal immune tonics.

Rose hips are a particularly rich source of vitamin C with levels ranging from 20-40 times more than oranges. During World War II the Women’s Institute in Britain organised mass gathering of rose hips to produce rose hip syrup in response to fruit supply shortages. In addition to syrup, rose hips can be dehydrated adding a delicious sweet and tart flavour to herbal teas. A favourite cold and flu prevention tea blend includes dried rose hips (four parts), hibiscus flowers (three parts), lemongrass (two parts) and cinnamon bark (one part). Rose hips and other harder fruit berries are best harvested after the first frost when they turn a bit sweeter.

Rose hip syrup

Recipe based on the original formula form the Women’s Institute in Britain.

Makes approximately 500ml, keeps for one year until opened. Once opened keep in the fridge and use within one month


200g fresh rose hips, finely chopped (can use a food processor)

1.25 litre water

200g sugar

Add finely chopped rose hips and water to a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 15-20 minutes. Strain through double thickness muslin or jelly bag, allow the pulp to sit for 20-30 minutes to ensure all the juice passes through (avoid squeezing the bag as this will allow irritant hairs to end up in the syrup). Wash the muslin or jelly bag or use a fresh one to pass the strained juice through it again (this is to ensure irritant hairs have been strained out). Add the strained juice and sugar into a large saucepan. Heat slowly while stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved bring to a boil for three minutes, skim off any debris off the top. Pour while still hot into sterilised bottles and seal. Take one to two teaspoons daily to prevent colds and flu or more frequently as needed.

Many berries have impressive antiviral activity with elderberries taking a starring role. Elderberries are well known for preventing and reducing colds and flus, with a strong history of use against upper respiratory infections. Herbal medicines containing elderberry have been shown to be as effective as antiviral medications for the flu, but with less side effects. One double-blind study demonstrated symptom improvement in 90% of people stricken with flu in just two days of taking an elderberry preparation as compared to six days for those taking a placebo. Consider using elderberry syrup as a preventative during cold and flu season and as a tasty medicinal base to disguise less pleasant tasting herbs. Making elderberry syrup is not difficult and if I were limited to just a few immune tonics, this would definitely be on my short list. Start by adding ripe elderberries, after separating the berries from stems with a fork, to a large saucepan along with half their volume in water. (Caution: only use blue elderberries as red ones are potentially toxic; also avoid eating raw elderberries as this can cause gastric upset.) Simmer and stir for 20 minutes. Allow to cool and then smash the berries, squeezing out the juice using a fruit press, fine mesh strainer or jelly bag. Measure the juice and for every 500ml of juice add 250g of sugar (or substitute honey), a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves, one tablespoon of grated ginger and a few slices of lemon. Simmer for 20 minutes more, strain and pour while hot into sterilised glass bottles. Take one to two teaspoons daily as an immune tonic or increase to one teaspoon every few hours at the start of a cold or flu.

For an enhanced immune-boosting blend, consider making a mixed berry oxymel. Oxymels are a sweet and sour herbal syrup with a strong taste, that combines vinegar, honey and herbs or berries. Traditionally they are taken neat, though can also be enjoyed as a salad dressing. Oxymels have been used since as early as 400 BC for a variety of respiratory and immune ailments. In the words of Hippocrates, “you will find the drink, called oxymel, very useful… for it promotes expectoration and freedom of breathing.” The combined health benefits of apple cider vinegar, honey and herbs make oxymels particularly potent medicine and it is a brilliant way to preserve herbs and berries as it lasts for up to two years.

Autumn Berries Oxymel

(recipe adapted from Pip Waller, herbalist in Wales)

Ingredients - makes about 1 litre of oxymel

6 handfuls of berries with stems removed (create your own blends of autumn berries including rose hips, elderberries, rowan, and hawthorn)

1 litre apple cider vinegar

750g (approximate 2 ¼ cups) honey (ideally local raw honey)

Combine the berries and vinegar in a glass container and allow to steep for two to four weeks in a cool, dark place. After two to four weeks, strain through a cloth (muslin or fine mesh). Measure the liquid and add an equal amount of honey. Gently heat to dissolve and then bottle while still hot in sterilised glass bottles. Take one to two teaspoons daily during cold and flu season as a preventative tonic.

Berries are not only a delightful snack, but one of nature’s most potent immune enhancing remedies. It seems by clever design that they arrive in abundance in the months leading up to winter, just when our immune systems are in need of some boosting. What a beautiful example of how we can thrive when we take advantage of what nature provides seasonally.