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 conifers, wild berries, tonic plants and adaptogenic herbs, 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!
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!)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!
P.S. To everyone asking where they can purchase the syrup – no I don’t sell it. But because of the many requests, I’ve decided to make limited batch for those becoming Patrons at the $20.00 dollar level, they will receive this syrup as a reward in January, and 3 other seasonal tonic syrups throughout the year.
Conifer & Wild Berry Tonic Syrup
(makes approx. 1 & 1/2 cups)
- Approx. 3 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. A knob of 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
- 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!
(Note: All Conifers are edible excepting the Yew whose pointy 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 occasionally in a tea. I make an infused Cedar & Rosehip Honey which I love in teas, sparkling water and cocktails. 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.)