Winter Medicine: Delicious & Warming Tonic Syrups

When dark, winter days challenge our bodies as well as our spirits, nothing makes a better remedy than old-fashioned tonic syrups. Time-tested & true, these potent preventatives and remedial healers call on the nourishing, medicinal powers of tonic plants and adaptogenic herbs, berries, honey and warming spices. And not only will they help fortify your body, bolster your immunity and strengthen your heart, they will even uplift your spirit!

Plus they’re just darn delicious splashed into sparkling water and cocktails or drizzled on pancakes, oatmeal, yoghurt and ice cream. And if you’re already under the weather, take heart, served straight up by the teaspoon or mixed into hot tea, tonic syrups not only help soothe symptoms of colds and flu, coughs, congestion and sore throats, they make the medicine go down in the most delightful way!

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Created by extracting and preserving plant’s nutrients and medicinal properties, in sugar, honey, and alcohol, there as many recipes and variations for herbal syrups as their are herbalists. I’ve kept with the folk tradition – meaning oh so easy to make! Well in my book at least. At any rate, this means we’re not going to get hung up on precise measurements or ingredients, but allow intuition and creativity to guide us.

In general, when making a herbal syrup you start with a big pot filled with plants (herbs, blossoms, bark or roots) and spices, fill with water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and wait. Several hours later when the liquid has reduced to 1/4 of its original volume, you’ve got yourself a decoction. To this you add an equal amount of honey, and several generous splashes of booze. Voila, you’re done. (More details coming below!)

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These syrups were inspired by the healing magic of the deep, silent forest. I started with a base of fragrant evergreens, douglas-fir, grand fir, spruce and pine needles, twigs, and a couple of resinous cones. To this I added an assortment of woodland berries and rosehips, all packed with nutrients and medicinal properties that boost vitality and nourish at the deepest level.

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Top to bottom: Douglas-fir twigs and cones, oranges, usnea, barberries, dried oregon grape, staghorn sumac seeds, rosehips and dried hawthorn berries.

Conifer needles have a bright citrus flavour and are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids. And according to various studies they contain anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular-protecting properties, and are one of the richest sources of polyprenols which stimulate the immune system, cellular repair and contain antiviral properties – in particular against influenza viruses!  Plus their volatile oils help release stimulating neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system, reduce cortisol, revive stamina and provide feelings of peace and wellbeing. (For more on info on conifers click here)

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I used dried rosehips and hawthorn berries, because they were handy. Fresh is even better!

Hawthorn and rosehips are also both exceptionally nutritious. Rich in vitamins, anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidants and bioflavonoids, they contain compounds that protect and strengthen the cardiac system and provide adaptogenic benefits, which enhance adrenal function when the body is undergoing physical or emotional stress. Both are renowned for their ability to warm heavy hearts and chase away seasonal blues.

To this basic formula, you add in different herbs according to your mood, purpose or ailment. For example, I made three variations: a savoury syrup with rosemary, sage, and bay (to enhance mental clarity and brain function) another with lemon balm and california poppy (to help banish stress and promote restful sleep) and the last with staghorn sumac seeds, barberries, ginger and fennel (to support digestion after or before seasonal feasting). Wild mint, pineapple weed, chamomile, yarrow and dandelion root will also help calm digestive upsets. Elderberry and echinacea will help fight off flu, comfrey root and mullein are good for soothing coughs, and valerian and skullcap will help you relax and get a good’s night rest.  

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Left to right: Staghorn Sumac Seeds | Fennel Seeds, Barberries, Dried Oregon Grape | California Poppy & Lemon Balm | Bay, Sage & Rosemary

To this you can add different combinations of cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and allspice, all of which bring their powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities to the brew. Finally, for every cup of your completed decoction, you will add an equal amount of honey or a thick sugar syrup (boiled down sugar & water). A dark syrup made with brown sugar adds a lovely buttery, caramel like flavour. I like to infuse both my syrup and honey with roughly chopped conifer needles for additional flavour. Give them a pulse in the food processor to release their volatile oils, then add to syrup or honey and let sit for a day or two.

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And when it comes to alcohol, you’ve got brandy, vodka, even rum to choose from. I used a douglas fir-infused vodka and hawthorn brandy I had on hand, but any strong spirit will do just fine.

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So if you’re looking to ward off colds and flus, or just a little warming tipple on dreary grey days, tonic syrups will help see you through the aches and pains of winter. Great for enhancing energy and vitality, boosting immunity and overall wellness, they’re easy to make and bring a festive touch to seasonal dishes and beverages. And they make just the perfect gift for those looking for something wild in their Yuletide stockings! 

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Conifer & Wild Berry Tonic Syrup

(makes approx. 1 & 1/2 cups)

Ingredients

  • Approx. 2 1/2 cups of mixed conifer needles. Throw in a few twigs and cones as well. 
  • Approx. 2 cups of mixed rosehips, hawthorn berries (and whatever other berries you’d like). Fresh or dried.
  • Approx. 3/4 cup of mixed herbs (use 1/2 cup if dried)
  • Dried orange peel to taste
  • 1 teaspoon each of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice or fennel seeds. Fresh ginger is nice too!
  • Approx. 5 cups of water (enough to cover your plant material)
  • 1 cup of raw local honey (or a thick brown sugar syrup made by boiling sugar & water together)
  • 1/4 cup of brandy or vodka or rum

Directions

  • Put the plant material in a pot and cover with water. Bring this to a boil and then lower to simmer for several hours until the liquid is reduced to 1/4 of it’s original volume (about a cup).
  • Strain the plant matter from your decoction. Use a fine, tight weave cloth like muslin (not cheesecloth).This is important in case any of the rosehips irritating fine interior hairs have escaped during cooking into the liquid. 
  • Then take your remaining liquid and put back into pot, adding your honey (or syrup). 
  • Gently heat while stirring for 10 minutes or so. Do not boil.Then remove and let cool.
  • Add your alcohol, stir well.
  • Your syrup is done! Pour off into clean, sterilized bottle. Will keep in the fridge for several months – long enough to get you through winter. Cheers!

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

42 thoughts on “Winter Medicine: Delicious & Warming Tonic Syrups

    1. Well good news is – you don’t really the alcohol at all. While I love the taste it gives to the syrup, it’s there mostly as a preservative. So if you skip it your syrup won’t last as long. Maybe a month or two in the fridge. But all the health benefits will still be there!

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      1. i had the same question; not because im in recovery but because i have acid reflux to the extreme; and im type 2 diabetic so alchohol is high on my no no list still trying to sort out how to make this a straight cough syrrup…(currently sick as a dog as i type this)

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      2. Hi, Sorry I cannot give specific, personal advice online, so you should connect with a herbalist or naturopath if you can… you can also research conifers or hawthorn berries online in connection with your health issues (i.e. look for contraindications)…and you can make without alcohol, it just won’t last as long, so be sure to consume it within a weeks and keep in the fridge. Good-luck & get better soon!

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      3. wow; after i posted that remark did i notice the date the thing was posted i honestly didn’t expect a reply; so 1st off thank you! But yeah, i ran it by some herbalist friends of mine and they gave me tweaks

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      1. i love all your recipes. they fire my imagination & reassure me that my instincts when i need a certain herb or plant are well founded. i crave rose hips anything. chalked it up to my ukrainian roots. these recipes greatly appeal to my hedge witch nature.i would love a book of your recipes to page through-gorgeous photos.thank you!

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      2. Well we’ve talked about doing a book, but it’s sooo much work,,,,maybe one day it will happen! Thank-you for all your compliments!

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    1. Outside! Conifers (evergreens like pine, spruce and fir) rosehips and hawthorn berries can be found in forests, fields and many neighborhoods across North America. You can purchase rosehips and hawthorn at many health food/herbalist stores too. Hope that helps.

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  1. Thank you thankyou thankyou!
    Your recipes are beautiful, your packaging is beautiful, YOU are beautiful for sharing this with us!
    I swear I can already taste them! Will be gathering some like-minded friends and making some woodland tonics!
    Chi miigwetch!
    A magical wintertime to you!

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  2. Would redwood make a good substitute for the other conifers? (Un)Fortunately, I live in an area without a lot of pine and fir, but near a lot of redwoods.

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  3. These are just wonderful syrups . Thank you! I will be enjoying these…I already use pine limbs in the bottom of my shower for nasal and chest congestion.works beautifully.

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  4. I came across you post while I was home sick with bronchitis. I went outside and gathered some spruce and fir needles, combined them with dried rosehips and hawberries, threw in the peel from my mandarin orange, a little ginger, a cinnamon stick, some cardamom and star anise. It smelled so lovely as it cooked down. I combined the strained liquid with some wildflower honey and a little rum. It’s fantastic. Thanks for posting just when I needed a little winter tonic.

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    1. Thank-you! I can’t say if they would work absolutely as I’ve never used them in the syrup before, but I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t work! Good luck!

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  5. Hi, I would love to try this! I am currently sick ( sore throat, headache, and ear ache) and also pregnant. I know I shouldn’t add the boose but can you tell me if the herbs listed in the recipe are safe during pregnancy? I just want to be safe.

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    1. If you just keep with the pine & fir needles, rosehips, hawthorn berries and herbs I’ve mentioned you should be fine. Do not use cedar or junipier berries. Here is a list of herbs that are generally recommended to avoided during pregnancy:
      Alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula)—cathartic
      Angelica (Angelica archangelica)—emmenagogue
      Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)—uterine stimulant
      Birthroot (Trillium spp.)—uterine astringent
      Blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus)—strong bitter
      Butternut (Juglans cinerea)—laxative
      Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana)—laxative
      Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)—possibly fetotoxic
      Damiana (Turnera diffusa)—nervous system and ­hormonal ­activity
      Drug aloe (Aloe vera)—cathartic
      Ephedra (Ma-huang) (Ephedra sinica)—high alkaloid content, cardiac stimulant
      Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)—emmenagogue
      Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)—uterine stimulant
      Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)—affects nervous system
      Juniper berries (Juniperus communis)—possibly feto­toxic, ­affects kidneys
      Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)—emmenagogue
      Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) (safe to use in cooking)—slightly toxic
      Osha (Ligusticum porteri)—emmenagogue
      Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) (safe to use in cooking)— ­emmenagogue
      Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)—emmenagogue
      Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa)—cardiac stimulant
      Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum)—laxative
      Rue (Ruta graveolens)—emmenagogue
      Sage (Salvia officinalis) (safe to use in cooking)—­emmenagogue, hormonal activity
      Sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii)—hormonal activity
      Scotch broom ( Cytisus scoparius)—cardiac stimulant
      Senna (Senna alexandrina)—laxative
      Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)—hemostatic
      Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)—emmenagogue
      Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)—emmenagogue

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    1. Yes thank-you! I completely forgot to add the warning I posted in my Conifer post “Recipes for Comfort & Joy: The Healing Powers of Conifers” (Note: All Conifers are edible excepting the Yew whose needles are thought to be toxic, though some herbalists use them medicinally. Cedar can be toxic in high doses but a handful of needles are just fine consumed in a tea. Ponderosa Pines should be avoided by pregnant or nursing mothers. Also avoid consuming the needles from the Norfolk Island Pine which is not native to BC and is often sold as mini-Christmas Trees in supermarkets.)

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I will add it the syrup post as well!

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  6. Where do you get your wonderful bottles? I am making this tonic to give as a gift to someone and could NOT find anything as fabulous as those… I ended up ordering these in amber https://highdesertbotanicals.com/glassware/500ml-reagent-bottle, but I love the twist on caps to keep the contents safe. Also, any hints for a first timer? I have never done anything like this before but was so taken by this wonderful post I decided to give it a try. I will be using the brown sugar syrup as sweetener. Thank you!

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    1. I bought the bottles here locally in Victoria but they were the last! They are discontinued though I think they can be ordered in the UK but thats the only place I’ve seen them. Tips: Don’t be shy using lots of needles and berries, because when you boil down you need the flavour & medicine. And when you make your syrup make sure it is nice and thick, if it is runny your syrup will be runny. And after you make you syrup, put three or four handfuls of needles in while still warm and let cool. Adds wonderful flavour. Don’t forget to strain! Good-luck!

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  7. Everything about this post is so heartwarming and beautiful,your photos brought tears to my eyes and praise to Heavenly Father for these wonderful gifts. Thankyou so much beautiful lady for all you put into this for our blessing….Annie

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  8. Oh my goodness, I just made a version of your Conifer & Wild Berry Tonic Syrup today. It is so good. Thank you so much! I really love the information and recipes you share with us. Not only are your posts beautiful but they overflow with wonderful information.

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