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DIY Kitchen: herbal immune syrup

March 12, 2012

When I was in my 20’s and so unencumbered that I’d routinely walk 30 minutes to downtown and back to mail a letter and buy a carton of rice milk, I began apprenticing at Hummingbird Herbals.

I gave five hours a week to the herb shop, chopping finger-thick roots, pouring the dark, forest brews called tinctures from mason jars into one ounce bottles for sale, and mixing up shredded herbs in a five gallon bucket until I had sneezing fits. For this, Melanie, the herbalist, gave us a weekly class on the principles of healing with herbs.

Classes were held in the illegal backyard shack in which Melanie lived, and where we all worked, without the benefit of running water. Leading by example, Melanie taught us first and foremost that to separate personal life from business life was folly, and furthermore too much trouble, so the night Melanie taught class in a gelled up mohawk, fishnets and leather mini was all par for the course. “I’m going to an eighties party after class,” she explained, silver bangles rollicking around her arms as she showed us on her own body, through ripped Pat Benatar shirt, where the liver, stomach and gall bladder could be found.

Every six months there was a new batch of apprentices. Like all those that came before, they’d stand on the step stool, pulling down mason jars of sloshing dark tincture, praying that this was not the moment when the whole bookshelf crammed with jars containing liquid worth thousands of dollars came crashing down.

True to my disposition—committed and deep-digging—I stayed for four years as an apprentice and then eventually became the shop’s first manager. The shop moved out of the clandestine shack into a sliver of a room in the back of a coffee shop and then finally into it’s own retail space.

Melanie eventually left town to try out the more lucrative job of sex therapist, and the business changed hands and returned to its wholesale origins. I stopped managing the business when Col was born, but still turn to plants for my family’s medicine as often as possible.

Herbal Immune Syrup

From the top, clockwise: licorice, astragalus, elderberries, rose hips, nettles

This immune syrup is our first defense against coughs, sore throats and sniffles. It has knocked back many creeping viruses and is working its magic on our household right now.


elderberries 2 oz

astragalus root 2 oz

licorice root 2 oz

nettles 2oz

rose hips 2oz

the gorgeous herb shop, Dancing Willow Herbs, where I buy my herbs these days


Add one quart of water into a large pot for every 2 oz of herb. For this recipe you’ll use 5 quarts water. Simmer (don’t boil) for 2-4 hours uncovered into a concentrated tea. Liquid will significantly reduce. If you have time (ie: no one’s sick yet), let the herbs sit in the water overnight in the fridge. In the morning strain the liquid off the herbs and warm up liquid (should be 2-3 quarts now). Turn heat off and while liquid is still warm, add 1 cup honey (don’t cook honey), stir until dissolved. Store in fridge if you’ll use within 2 weeks, otherwise store in freezer. (These herbs are naturally mild and sweet, but if your kids need it sweeter, add another 1/2 cup of honey).


Dosage for children is 1 oz (2 tbsp) of syrup every 2-3 hours. Double that for adults. We also use it as a preventative, especially if anyone else in the house is sick, at 1oz/day.

the long simmer

straining the herbs

bottled syrup, which will make you feel particularly awesome to be dispensing to your people. Leave couple inches headroom if freezing.

What herbs do you and your family use?

*DIY Kitchen is a new feature, which will appear on most Mondays, mostly.

* Linking with the Homestead Barn Hop and Simple Lives Thursday

32 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2012 8:08 am

    To separate business and personal life is folly. Amen. I cannot tell you how much I needed to hear that right now. And the costume cemented it. Thank you

  2. March 12, 2012 8:18 am

    My wife will be very interested in this concoction, minus the licorice root we have all the ingredients growing on our property. Thanks for sharing this recipe.:)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 12, 2012 9:59 am

      Oh, I’m not jealous at all that you have elderberries growing on your property, oh no, not at all.

      • cindy3539 permalink
        April 9, 2018 1:00 pm

        How much vodka would i add to finished syrup to preserve it so i don’t have to keep it in the fridgr? Thank you.

  3. Nana Judy permalink
    March 12, 2012 8:37 am

    Love how you weave (steep?) experiences from your past into your present. Hope your DIY cough/cold brew beats back those creepy viruses now!

  4. teresa permalink
    March 12, 2012 8:42 am

    love this recipe!!! thank you… we use an astragalus/echinacea tincture when cold germs hit our house. but this would be MUCH cheaper!

    if you freeze it, do you freeze in in ice cube trays? or whole jars?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 12, 2012 9:54 am

      It is so much cheaper! I freeze in jars, leaving about 3 inches headspace for expansion.

  5. March 12, 2012 9:16 am

    What a beautiful herbal shop. Shops like that make my heart sing. So much inspiration, so much to concoct. One of my few career dreams is to own an urban apothecary. Someday down the road… :)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 12, 2012 9:56 am

      Katie – my dear friend Laura, who—no joke!—got her start apprenticing at Melanie’s shop now owns Holistic Pathways, which is a fantastic herb shop in Denver. You should check her out. She is a lovely person.

      • May 23, 2012 5:02 pm

        Just getting to all your posts I have missed while lovin’ on my baby boy Owen. Thanks for the shout-out! And thanks to you Rachel, one late night at some dark bar in Durango, I told you my dream of working with plants and you directed me straight to Humminbird’s… eek that was almost 15 years ago! LOVE YOU! Laura

  6. March 12, 2012 9:59 am

    oh yummy! we’ve been making syrups to fight colds, but usually featuring just one star ingredient at a time…this recipe is like a gathering of superheros.

    speaking of superpowers jam packed into one container, i love these posts where you unfurl a little bit of your past, and my own knowing of you gets to expand….along with my admiration. thank you for sharing your richness with us. xo

  7. March 12, 2012 10:00 am

    Wow, thanks for this. What a gift. Do you know anything about using the wild licorice that grows around Durango (Glycyrrhiza lepidota) vs the traditional European licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and if one can be substituted for the other? Since the European variety is Zone 7 (from what I can find), it would be nice to be able to use the local variety instead, and grow it myself, rather than having to purchase. Then one could potentially wild harvest all of this. Do you know what species of Astragalus? Wikipedia says there are over 3,000 kinds. A. bisulcatus (milk vetch) and probably several others grow in CO, but I know the foliage is poisonous to livestock. The kind I have purchased before is A. membranaceus (also called A. propinquus), which is native to China. It’s zone 6….hmmmm, I could maybe grow that here in Walla Walla. Sweet!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 12, 2012 10:14 am

      Jen, At the herb shop we used the local licorice only when someone’s blood pressure was high enough that the chinese licorice (g. glabra) wasn’t safe. The American licorice is less sweet, and perhaps a bit less potent as a demulcent – but man, is it abundant. I’ll experiment with it this fall. My understanding is that the astragalus around Durango is potentially poisonous (it’s also my understanding that it was an astragalus plant that killed Chris McCandless in AK – “Into the Wild.”). I use the A. membranaceus, which I have grown successfully in Durango, and which I bet you could rock in Washington. In fact, I’ve always fantasized about (someone – not necessarily me) starting a medicinal plant farm. I think it could be super profitable and amazing to be surrounded by such powerful plants!

  8. March 12, 2012 10:51 am

    Great idea for DIY kitchen, these posts are always interesting and helpful! We have loads of frozen elderberries and elderberry syrup still in the fridge from last summer. We don’t grow any of the others though so I’ll have to do some searching at the health food shop for the rest. I’m not sure if they’d grow up here or not but I’ll certainly check that out!

  9. March 12, 2012 12:30 pm

    Love this – I use tinctures but I can’t give my kids that hooch. I think I even have all these ingredients on hand at the moment – what kind of geek does that make me?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 12, 2012 9:37 pm

      A very prepared geek whose kids will heal fast. Word.

  10. March 12, 2012 1:26 pm

    Pinned. Can’t wait to try it!

  11. March 12, 2012 1:38 pm

    My days as a 16 year old herb apprentice in Taos were so sweet. This was just what I needed today. I’ve gotten way too into homeopathy and miss the strong smell of plants a-brewing.

  12. March 12, 2012 3:45 pm

    Almost like a fairytale shop, I dream of the islands having one. Seriously shocked we don’t. Nettles have saved my life, especially during allergy season and (in the past) early labor contractions. I’ve been run over with a horrible head cold, so I’m wishing I had that syrup about now. I was once told dill is a bronchodilator, and it helps my asthma immensely. I couldn’t make it without lavender and mint with migraines.

  13. March 12, 2012 4:02 pm

    like mary said, i usually make syrups with one key ingredient at a time, but only because i am less sure of what combines well together, never having had the privilege of a four year apprenticeship (you are so cool!) i like the sound of this blend. most of these are ones i’m already using on us. i’m not as familiar with astragalus. but boy am i a big fan of nettles. echinacea is of course a favorite for immune boosting. right now i’m on the other end of it because we did get sick anyway, in spite of elderberries, so we’re sporting the mullein and lemon balm and clover and garlic and….

  14. March 12, 2012 4:36 pm

    perfect. I’ve been dabbling in some very amateur-ish brews myself, since I’m all the way out here and can’t get my Immense Defense on a semi-annual basis. Granted, we have great herb shops here, but I just LOVE that stuff. Anyhow, I’ve been reading Aviva Romm and wanting to make some of her brews, but you win. I’m gonna go for this one. So glad I can freeze it. That’s my biggest issue…it has to be something I can store and quickly grab when I need it.

  15. Dan permalink
    March 12, 2012 8:33 pm

    Ahhhhh, I’m healed! Great writing on the old days with Melanie! Love, Dan

  16. March 13, 2012 10:31 am

    You are so full of wisdom and good stories. That apprenticeship sounds like quite the experience! I am definitely filing this recipe away for a time when I have some herbs at my disposal, and am so excited about this feature. I love the bit about it will appear on most Mondays, mostly.

    Also, we’re home and over the jet lag, so I have officially started my ginger bug, and I’m pretty darn excited about it.

  17. March 13, 2012 2:22 pm

    Love it. When I’m back in the D-town area I’m always down to make herb collecting excursions with you and to go in on making bulk batches of tinctures and salves. Herbal parties…kind of like tupperware parties but more witchcrafty and cool. To be honest, I’ve never attended a tupperware party, so I shouldn’t judge…. :)

  18. March 14, 2012 2:37 am

    You always surprise me. I didn’t know this about you. I think this is definitely easy enough that I could try this. So, I can freeze some of it if I don’t use it?

    Thanks for sharing your gift with all of us!


  19. coleen permalink
    March 14, 2012 5:53 pm

    We cook with herbs but thats about it. I would love to know more…any book suggestions?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      March 19, 2012 5:46 pm

      Coleen, Herbal books: Anything by Rosemary Gladstar or Michael Moore (not *that* Michael Moore). xo

  20. March 17, 2012 4:51 pm

    Ah-ha! I wondered how you managed to become so knowledgeable about herbal remedies. Thank you so much for this recipe. I look forward to more! (pretty please?)

    I’m catching up on blog reading. I will do my best not to leave 3,000 comments on older posts, but I can’t make any promises.


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