Flowers and berries in modern herbal medicine: Elderberry

Growing, Healthy activities, Healthy Food, Organic Herbs and Teas

Materia Medica: Elder

Common names: Elderberry

Latin name: Sambucus nigra var. canadensis

Parts used: Flowers and berries in modern herbal medicine, all parts historically.

Action: The flowers are a wonderful diaphoretic! Fevers are the body’s way of fighting off infections, so we don’t always want to lessen a fever, unless it’s either too high or has been going on too long. For a fever they’re beautiful in a tea or even in the bath, but tinctures will work well too.



Elderberries are antiviral and are an immunomodulator, which means they help the body balance to whatever level of action the immune system needs to fight infections. The berries make a lovely tincture, syrup, or elixir (combination of the two!) to prevent infections, and when taken during acute infections can lessen the infection’s severity. You can dry the berries too and add them to teas, they’re in our Heart Chakra blend, as well as the Everyday Wellness!

Elderberry plant

Elderberry plant

Once you can identify elder, and are aware of its healing properties, you’ll see it everywhere! Highway ditches, roadside creeks, your backyard! It’s a shrub and not a tree, and if you see one in the wild you’ll probably see 50! It prefers wet feet, which is easy to get in rainy Florida, and as of the last few years has taken to flowering almost year round! We’re lucky to have an elder shrub growing in the Dandelion garden and it is one of the happiest cultivated elders around! Tall, prolific flowers and berries, and keeps both its neighboring human and bird population very happy (the birds eat the berries too!).

I love to use elder daily in the wintertime, when everyone around me is full of cooties. It makes a beautiful and delicious preventative drink, and is was from inspiration from the elder that created the Everyday Wellness herbal tea blend at Dandelion!

Elder really is a pharmacy within a plant, and a tasty one too! Please enjoy these links to learn more about elder from some brilliant teachers:

Kiva Rose’s elder monograph

Rosemary Gladstar’s Garden Wisdoms: Elder Medicine

Jim McDonald’s Elder monograph

Eat The Weeds: Elderberries: Red, White, and Blue

Could desert crops become the new sustainable dinner?

Growing, Healthy Food

From our recent reporting on The Culinary Frontier, a look at what’s on the menu in the warmer, drier years ahead. Some of it’s pretty tasty.


Inperennially water-starved Patagonia, Arizona, just 18 miles from the Mexico border, Gary Nabhan, well known as an author and ethnobotanist, farms a worldly array of desert crops that could make any food lover salivate. The harvest, more than 120 varieties strong, includes Sonoran pomegranates, Baja California Mission guavas, Winter Banana apples, amaranth, asparagus, globe artichokes, and even an arid-friendly Texas Mission variety of the infamously thirsty almond. His 5-acre farm, which he manages with his wife Laurie Monti, a medical anthropologist and professor of indigenous studies, grows these foods on precious little water — about 17 inches of rainfall a year, a dollop compared with the US-wide average of 28 inches.

In the fall, even after a spring and summer of almost no rain, the Hopi Corn is ripe and ready for harvest — as long as Polly Goldman can get a little help from her family.

Blending thousand-year-old desert crop varieties with water-saving approaches and farming techniques inherited from Moorish Spain, Africa, and indigenous North America, Nabhan’s modest arid plot offers a glimpse of how we could sustain ourselves in an era of chronic drought and increasing climate chaos.

A drought-friendly dinner “isn’t going to be any less delicious,” says Nabhan. Shifting what we eat could, in his view, mean a scrumptious revolution. During a phone conversation, Nabhan ticked off a tasty menu of other drought-friendly options: sea beans, Mesquite carob (good for diabetes), pistachios, figs, tepary beans, pigeon peas, quinoa, and soups and stews made with prickly pear cacti instead of the more water-intensive bell peppers.

In equally arid northern New Mexico, famed chef and author Deborah Madison surveys a hardscrabble terrain and sees another lush menu of possibilities. The Greens Restaurant founder, always scouting for new sustainable recipes in the garden and the kitchen, points to foods that “we are already familiar with, but haven’t tried growing as much” in recent times: Sonoran wheat. Quinoa. Red orach. Rattlesnake beans. Zucchini in multiple varieties.

One reason Nabhan is such a fan of these obscure food plants is that they’re adaptable. Like any plant, they like water; but when water grows scarce, these plants have natural methods of storing it, or thriving without it. Not so with the miles and miles of lettuce, strawberries, and other crops such as wheat (at least the modern varieties) that dominate the Western diet.

In the Salinas Valley of California–a region known for water guzzling crops like lettuce and strawberries — Jim Leap and Polly Goldman farm a bounty of vegetables that require very little water. This row of garbanzo beans is an example.

In California, the source of a full two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts, one-third of its vegetables, and nearly 20 percent of its dairy products, growers’ response to drought has centered largely on water conservation measures such as drip irrigation.

But Craig McNamara, the President of the state’s Board of Food and Agriculture, argues, “We’re going to have to change what’s for dinner.” Bespectacled and chiseled with a straight-combed silver mane, McNamara, who farms 450 acres of organic walnuts and olives in Winters, California, bears a striking resemblance to his father Robert, the former defense secretary who steered military offensives in the Vietnam War. Today, McNamara worries that California’s drought could topple the state’s agricultural primacy. “For the first time, I’m tremendously worried about where we are…I’ve never felt we are closer to collapse than I do today.”

Despite the “beyond painful” drought crisis, McNamara says the conversation about shifting crops is still at a whisper: “I’m not sure how much this is getting to farmers.”

About 180 miles south of Davis, near the town of Madera in the gut of San Joaquin Valley, organic vegetable farmer Tom Willey sees market signals pointing farmers toward more thirsty crops, not fewer. “I don’t see a headlong rush to more water-saving crops.” Even as the drought deepens and water supplies disappear, Willey says many growers are still moving into almonds, which have been much vilified lately for their heavy water demands (roughly a gallon per nut). In fairness, it should be noted that much of today’s almond acreage used to grow cotton, which is one of the plant world’s biggest water hogs. So while almonds do use a lot of water, California at least traded T-shirts for more protein.

On his 75-acre patch of land, Willey has a little more flexibility than the average farmer. He produces a “seasonal progression” of row crops — annual vegetable varieties such as squash, leafy greens, and peppers that can be shifted depending on weather, water and market demands. “We can act and react much easier than farmers with permanent crops” such as fruit and nut orchards, Willey explains.

Jim Leap and Polly Goldman’s corn–an heirloom variety developed by the Hopi Indians, partly because of how well it tolerates dry years.

The Drought’s Opportunities

On his small homestead farm in San Juan Batista, sustainable agriculture educator Jim Leap produced a prodigious harvest this year of dry-farm beans, corn, winter squash, and tomatoes on just 10 inches of rain (and no irrigation). Leap, who for 21 years managed a research farm at the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, points out, “I can’t superimpose that on farmers who are trying to make a living.”

Prior to the 1950s, when sprawling irrigation canal projects and increasingly globalized markets took hold, the Golden State produced a very different bounty — grains, sugar beets, potatoes, beans, dry-farmed apples. With the rise of California’s massive agricultural aqueducts came access to cheap irrigation water, which, coupled with lucrative new export markets, spawned an array of thirsty specialty crops. At present, there is no fast track back toward more drought-tolerant harvests.

Absent sweeping policy changes, more and more small farmers are bucking the trends. And, in this case, “the market” is leading the way. Thomas Nelson, who analyzes sustainable food markets for the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, notices a growing interest among chefs and farmers in harvesting drought-tolerant wild greens such as miner’s lettuce, wild mustard, bristly ox tongue, and black locust flowers. They may sound obscure, but these foods are increasingly popular among professional foragers and chefs at up-market restaurants.

“The market has a really push-pull dynamic,” he says. “One reason almonds have grown so big is because there was a big marketing push behind them. It becomes a self-perpetuating system.” Well, the same could be true for drought-tolerant heirlooms and other dry-farm fruits and vegetables. As Nelson points out, the booming niche market for heirloom tomatoes and salad mixes was just a glimmer 25 years ago.

Going dry and small

Back in the eternally dry Southwest, famed sustainable-foods chef and author Deborah Madison sees progress on the margins. “Some people are definitely starting to look at [shifting to water-saving crops]. Every agriculture conference I go to ties into these issues,” she says — “but I don’t think it’s happening fast enough.”

Much of the solution, says Madison, who founded Greens Restaurant (one of the nation’s premier vegetarian venues), lies in “hyper-local” farming systems that can provide a diverse food supply with greater adaptability to climate chaos. “The solutions depend on lots of hands, and smaller farms,” she says, and smaller economies of scale that enable attention to detail. “A lot of the changes we need, I don’t think big agriculture can do it.”

From his rain-deprived vantage point near the Mexico border, Nabhan makes a compelling case for scaling up desert crop varieties and time-tested farming techniques. What’s especially compelling to Nabhan is that these are not new ideas. The challenge, he says, is to “make certain that we don’t grow these in monocultures as we’ve done with other crops.”

For more about what makes a “good farming system” — it involves a lot more than smart methods of cultivation — see “Food Shift,” Christopher D. Cook’s full story on this subject.

To keep up with our continuing coverage of sustainable agriculture and related issues, subscribe to our newsletter.

Photos by permission of Tohono O’odham Community Action and Polly Goldman.

Looking for new ways to cook healthier for the Holiday’s?

Healthy Food, Organic Herbs and Teas, Orlando News and Events
FRESH STARTS COOKING CAMP 2015 will give you some great ideas. Starts on Tuesday November 3rd at 7pm for a total of 6 classes.
Join Chef Amy, graduate of The Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC and Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts in this cooking series to learn how to prepare fresh, healthy, seasonal and organic meals. In each session you will learn about whole organic food and how to prepare it. Each class will include recipes for you take home along with resources on where to find the best quality food. These classes will guide you to become a seasoned home chef ready to prepare what’s growing locally in your neighborhood.

Testimonials from past Campers:

“Amy is the perfect instructor for this series of classes. She moves easily between conversation and demonstration to share her knowledge of nutrition and cooking technique. We all have heard the message that healthy and delicious food choices and preparation are accessible to all of us but Amy will inspire you to actually revise your grocery list and make changes to your daily diet. Greens are great.”

“Amy is a wonderful, friendly, welcoming person. And with her training and experience, she is a very effective teacher and an efficient chef. Her recipes are simple but delicious. She loves answering questions about food and sharing kitchen tips, and you will learn a lot in her class. I know I did!”

“Chef Amy has changed my kitchen forever! My vegetables are no longer just boiled, and chopping them is faster and much more fun! Her recipes are delicious and serve as a great starting point, but her techniques are what make cooking even possible for me. The amount of time they save and the fun they bring get me in the kitchen and wanting to be creative!”


Session 1: Go Green. Chef Amy will kick start the series with an educational lecture on how to select quality ingredients. She will discuss the benefits of eating organically and the realities of how most of our food is produced. We will prepare seasonal dishes with local greens. Dishes may include depending on availability: bok choi, kale, collard greens, sorrel, spinach and Swiss chard.

Session 2: Somewhere Over the Rainbow of Vegetables. Chef Amy will explain how to select the freshest seasonal vegetables and the most nutritious ways to prepare them. Cutting and cooking techniques for fresh vegetables will be the focus. In this class, you will learn how to incorporate vegetables into every meal and snack of the day.

Session 3: Sea Vegetables Aren’t Just for Mermaids. Chef Amy will identify a variety of sea vegetables and discuss the powerful health benefits of incorporating them in your regular diet. We will create easy dishes and snacks from these trace mineral rich treats from the sea.

Session 4: The Great Whole Grain. Chef Amy will discuss what a whole grain is and the benefits of choosing whole grains over refined grains. We will identify a variety of whole grains including oats, quinoa, rice, amaranth, millet, freekah and farro. We will prepare whole grain dishes that may be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Session 5: The Perfect Plant Protein. Chef Amy will demonstrate the best ways to cook dried legumes. She will discuss the benefits of consuming legumes as a staple source of protein. We will cover how to create tasty dishes from our nutritious little seeds.

Session 6: Soups On! Chef Amy loves vegetable soup all year round. Its an easy meal, side dish or snack that you can make ahead of time and enjoy anytime of the day. We will learn how to make a fresh stock as a base for our homemade soup du jour.

Camp Details

Each class will include a health and recipe packet, sampling of the dishes we create and homemade beverages.

Class Schedule:
Tuesday ‘s from 7-9pm
no class week of Thanksgiving

Homegrown Local Food Cooperative
2310 N. Orange Ave.
Orlando, FL 32804

Tuition: $150 for the entire Camp!

To Register email Chef Amy:

Cacao with friends

Organic Herbs and Teas
Cacao with friends

Cacao with friends

Hot chocolate is so lovely to share with friends. Hot cacao is even more lovely, lush even. Cacao is more than a candy bar, and has more than just caffeine in it. When I think of cacao and drink or eat cacao I pause and think of the centuries of reverence and ceremony surrounding this special plant, Theobroma cacao. The Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, and many other native peoples who lived in the Central American rain forests considered cacao a gift from the gods, and it was an important part of their lives. Experiencing it yourself, it’s easy to see why. This heart opener brings me joy and clear thoughts, and what better traits to share with friends.

This hot cacao “recipe” (as you’ll see, my recipes are often a pinch of this, splash of that, and leave lots of room for creativity) was a truly decadent hit with some friends of mine, and I’d love to share it with you!

All of my ingredients are organic, because that’s what I keep on hand. It’s also how I trick myself into eating healthy: I only keep the good stuff on hand. Not all the time, but I try.  You’ll need:

  • 1-1.5C shredded coconut
  • 4C warm water (I used a tea kettle and let it whistle, then took it off the heat for several minutes to cool down to warm)
  • 1-2C cacao nibs
  • 2T powdered cinnamon (or a cinnamon stick!)
  • 1t powdered ginger (or 1/2t fresh grated ginger)
  • a PINCH of chili powder, or more if you’re a hottie!
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 3-4T maple syrup
  • optional vanilla extract. I used about a capful of some homemade vanilla extract in bourbon

This is a homemade creamy hot cacao made with some deliciously rich  and dead simple homemade coconut milk.

Dead simple homemade coconut milk:
Add your shredded coconut with the warm water to a blender, blitz for 3-5 minutes depending on your blender, then strain. It helps to have cheesecloth or a nut milk bag for straining, but isn’t necessary. I used a simple kitchen strainer.

Hot cacao with friends:
I strained the coconut milk straight into a sauce pan that was already on a medium low heat. To that I added the cacao nibs, cinnamon powder, ginger powder, a pinch of chili powder, small splash of vanilla extract, and a little sea salt. Then stirred frequently and kept on a very low simmer with the lid off for about 10 minutes (or more, if you can stand to wait, your kitchen will start to smell pretty delectable.). I added maple syrup as my sweetener. It wasn’t very sweet, which is what I wanted, so if you like it sweeter feel free to add more than what this recipe calls for.

This mixture needs to be strained, as you’re decocting the cacao nibs and not using something like cacao powder (which I imagine you very well could, but I had a surplus of nibs on my hand so that’s what I used). This is extremely decadent and creamy, feel free to cut with some water while you’re decocting to spread the love a little further. Or be even more adventurous and split this with a complementary heart opening tisane of roses and damiana!

Serves 4.

May cacao bring joy to your heart, mind, and life.

Bio: Nina DiCristina is an herbalist in Orlando, Florida. She’s been studying the plants since 2008 and formally with the guidance of herbalist Emily Ruff at the Florida School of Holistic Living since 2011. She’s also been fortunate enough to study with Rosemary Gladstar, and  Guido Masé. She loves the daily communion with the plants and the joy they bring to those who know them. She writes at, can be found pouring the tea at beloved Dandelion Communitea Cafe, teaching at the Florida School of Holistic Living, and enthusiastically assisting at the annual Florida Herbal Conference.

Materia Medica: Cuban Oregano

Organic Herbs and Teas

Cuban Oregano

Common names: Cuban Oregano, Indian Borage, Mexican Mint, Spanish Thyme
Latin name: Plectranthus amboinicus
Parts used: Leaves
Action: Aromatic, stimulating to the digestive system, clears congestion, really an ally for the liver and kidneys

This is a beautiful tropical plant that grows oh-so-well in Central Florida (and really every tropical place). One of the best plants for people who think they have a black thumb to grow, it’s almost impossible to kill! That tenacity is mirrored in its scent and flavor, it almost screams to you as you touch it or brush past it, “use me!!!”. Very pungent and flavorful, this makes a great addition to soups, casseroles, or anything you’d add oregano, mint, thyme, or basil. It has lots of common names all over the world: Mexican Mint, Indian Borage, Spanish Thyme, and the one I met it as, Cuban Oregano. It is neither mint, borage, thyme, or oregano, it is its own unique, fleshy, tasty herb.

Pictured above I have a cuban oregano pesto, that uses half basil, half cuban oregano, and is delicious on top of greens, rice, pasta, beans, wherever else you’d use pesto!

Cuban Oregano Pesto

  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3 cups herbs (I used half basil half cuban oregano)
  • 1/2 cup hemp seeds*
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast**
  • salt & pepper pinch
  • 1/2 cup really good olive oil

*you can use walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, whatever you like!
**if you have a hard cheese on hand, use that. I always have nutritional yeast and since it lends a parmesan like flavor I throw it in. I actually haven’t ever made a pesto with cheese, sacrilegious I know!

Blend everything but the olive oil for 30 seconds and slowly drizzle in the olive oil.

One of my favorite plant friends that spills all over my garden in every corner, I really love Cuban Oregano.


Nina DiCristina

Bio: Nina DiCristina is an herbalist in Orlando, Florida. She’s been studying the plants since 2008 and formally with the guidance of herbalist Emily Ruff at the Florida School of Holistic Living since 2011. She’s also been fortunate enough to study with Rosemary Gladstar, and  Guido Masé. She loves the daily communion with the plants and the joy they bring to those who know them. She writes at, can be found pouring the tea at beloved Dandelion Communitea Cafe, teaching at the Florida School of Holistic Living, and enthusiastically assisting at the annual Florida Herbal Conference.

Kitchen Medicine: Garlic

Organic Herbs and Teas
Common name: Garlic
Latin name: Allium sativum
Parts used: bulb
Actions: antibacterial, antifungal, great cardiovascular tonic, helps fight yeast infections, wonderful as a prevention and treatment of colds & flus.

Kitchen medicine is possibly my favorite part about practicing herbalism, because you’re using tools that almost everyone has in their pantry and making some beautiful medicine with those everyday items. Today I made a garlic syrup using honey. This is useful for sore throats, a daily immunity boost, and as an exquisite addition to dishes (I poured a little on some tamales today! Unconventional, but delicious!).

I decocted 1/4c (one full head) chopped garlic in 1.25 cups of water, and let it cook down to about half its volume. To that I added an equal part honey, which ended up being too much honey, so I threw the garlic BACK into the decoction + honey and kept it on the warm burner for about 20 more minutes. Not usually what I’d recommend for people to emulate, but it made a really really delicious & strong syrup! Traditional syrup recipes look more like this, but if you end up doing what I did it’ll be just fine. You can also just very lowly simmer garlic and honey together and skip the decoction altogether.


Bio: Nina DiCristina is an herbalist in Orlando, Florida. She’s been studying the plants since 2008 and formally with the guidance of herbalist Emily Ruff at the Florida School of Holistic Living since 2011. She’s also been fortunate enough to study with Rosemary Gladstar, and  Guido Masé. She loves the daily communion with the plants and the joy they bring to those who know them. She writes at, can be found pouring the tea at beloved Dandelion Communitea Cafe, teaching at the Florida School of Holistic Living, and enthusiastically assisting at the annual Florida Herbal Conference.