What are Elderberries?

Oct 4, 2011 by     16 Comments    Posted under: Focus Ingredients, Wild Berries
Wild Elderberry

Wild Elderberry

What’s an elderberry?

Elderberries are small, dark berries that grow in clusters on elder trees (also called elderberry bushes), and are very common throughout Europe and North America.  They have a long history of human use, from food, to wine, and even for medicine.   One of my favorite uses is Elderberry Crostata with Lemon.  They are a fast-growing plant which can grow up to 13 feet tall.  The leaves are compound and feather-like, the bark smooth and gray with little bumps.   The branches are pliable when young, brittle when older, and have a white pith inside which is sometimes hollow like a tube.  In late spring or early summer, tightly clustered bunches of tiny white lacy flowers form in large umbrella shaped clusters.

In late summer to early fall, clusters of berries begin to ripen where the flowers used to be.  These berries are a favorite staple food supply for many wildlife, especially birds.  They’re soon to be a favorite for you too.

Delicious Wild Elderberries

Delicious Wild Elderberries

Where do I find elderberries?

Elderberries are very common and easy to find.  They like to grow in the moist soil along roadsides, ditches, and streams.  Where you find one tree, you’ll likely find several more.  They are easiest to spot in the late summer/early fall when the clusters of berries are full and purple.  The trees look like a patch of woody stalks covered with leaves and patches of purple clusters splattered throughout.

There are several varieties of elderberries, some even having red berries.  But I’ve only ever had the purple ones, which for me, are the easiest to identify and the most plentiful to find.

Elderberry Bush

Elderberry Bush

What parts of the elderberry tree can I use?

Well, in the Spring, you can use the white flowers, aptly named Elderflowers.  They are very aromatic, and have the same umbrella cluster shape as the berries, just white flowers instead of purple berries.  Elderflowers have a honey citrus flavor, and can be used to make jellies, teas, brewed into wines and champagne, lightly battered and fried into fritters, or stirred into muffin or sponge cake mix for a light, sweet flavor.



In early Fall, the ripe berries can be made into many things: extracts, syrups, pies, jams, jellies, cobblers, and more.

The leaves, twigs, stems, roots and unripe berries of all elderberry plants are not edible, and contain toxins which are metabolized into cyanide.  So, it’s not a good idea whatsoever to eat anything off an elderberry tree other than the ripe berries and the blossoms.  Unless of course you like cyanide poisoning.  But don’t let this deter you from harvesting these abundant jewels.  Many foods we love and commonly eat also come from toxic plants, such as rhubarb and tomatoes.

How do I harvest elderberries?

I can’t think of an easier berry to harvest than elderberries.  Simply snip off the entire berry cluster and take it home with you.  Take your share, but leave plenty for the birds; they need the food too.

Once you get them home, rinse the clusters off in cold water, shake dry, then place on a sheet pan, in a bowl, or in a box, and then place in your freezer.  Freeze them overnight, then remove the berries by gently squeezing the clusters together in your hand as you gently rub your fingers across the berries.  They will just fall right off and save you tons of time as compared to picking them off when not frozen.

Alternately, I’ve heard you can use a comb to rake the berries free, or that you can place the frozen berries in a box and shake the box around vigorously to remove from the stems, but I haven’t tried either yet.  Once you’ve removed all the berries, you’ll need to double check to remove any remaining pieces of stem, as these have the toxins in them.

Elderberry Stems

Elderberry Stems

Do elderberries have seeds?

Elderberries are loaded with them.  The tiny seeds tend to stay crunchy even after cooking, so the whole berries provide a pronounced texture when used.  The seeds are edible though and don’t need to be removed before cooking or eating. I find the added crunch is quite enjoyable in pies, and really aren’t that much more distracting than the seeds found in blackberries.

Can I eat the berries raw?

You can eat the ripe berries raw in small quantities, but they really aren’t very good.  They have a VERY low sugar content, and taste a bit bitter and foul.  Couple this with the fact that there can be a trace of toxins still in the ripe berries, and it is best to cook them before eating in large quantities.  But mix these little guys with sugar or honey and POW!, you have an awesome berry with a very pungent and distinctive delicious flavor.

What heath benefits to elderberries provide?

Nutritionally, elderberries contain large amounts of vitamin C, potassium, and beta-carotene, as well as calcium and phosphorous.

Medicinally, elderberries have been proven in quite a few recent studies to shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms (from 6 days of flu down to only 2), as well as strengthen the immune system.  They are a natural diuretic and detoxifying agent, and have been shown to help with weight loss.  The flowers can help to restore the skin, sooth sunburns and rashes, and even help with sore muscles when steeped in oil and massaged in.

The Bald Gourmet adores natural wild gourmet foods, like wild elderberries.


16 Comments + Add Comment

  • So i have a bag of dried, organic elderberries to make elderberry syrup with. I made a little last year but am making some now, and I realized theres definitely plenty of pieces of branches in the bag, and therefore in my water thats cooking the berries into syrup… is this ok ? ?

  • My parents used to make elderberry wine and jam when I was young ,it was wonderful! I used to pick them and put them in the freezer for a wonderful snack later in the day!

  • How can I identify elderberry bushes without the leaves? I know I’ve seen them growing wild in my area but right now there are no leaves to help identify

    • Once you know what they look like, you can easily spot them. But until then, I’m not sure how to tell you what to look for. They kind of look like a bundle of sticks sticking out of the ground. The wood is hollow/filled with a soft pith. The bark is very smooth. And it has a stinky elderberry smell (somewhat).

  • Hi,

    Great piece about the magnificent elderberries, can you advise the latest these should be picked roughly say in the UK?


  • I harvested elderberries in my area quite late in the Season, near the end of November. It had been freezing at night. The elderberries looked good. Is there any danger to using the berries late in the season?

    • Nope

  • Just a comment– and maybe a laugh. I’ve tried many times and many years to make Elderberry wine and every time, I ended up with Elderberry vinegar. Awful. I quit wasting the berries and stick with jelly and syrup now.

    • Amen Lynda! Lol.

  • I have been making Elderberry Syrup for years. It’s a favorite on our pancakes/French toast/Waffles etc.
    I keep a goodly amount of the syrup on hand for medicinal purposes. I can attest to the reduction in time of flu and cold symptoms. The good thing about it is that you can’t OD on it. We take it generously when ill. Add some Garlic and Echinacia and it’s almost instant cure.11

  • I live in forest grove oregon could you please tell me where in Oregon can I find blueberries and if you could send me what they look like in the wild thanks.

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  • I really miss Elderberry wine by Split Pea Anderson Restaurant.
    Why is this wine so very hard to find?
    Thank you for your time.

    • Elderberry wine is an old common wine that seems to have lost favor over the years for some reason. I know a lot of people still make it themselves all over the country, and there may be some specialty shops and online retailers that sell it. I’ve also seen a lot of recipes for it posted on different blogs online. I wish you the best of luck finding some. Myself personally, I just use elderberries for making pies and jams.

    • You can find elderberry syrup at health food stores, like Vitamin Shoppe.

I love hearing from my readers, so please go ahead and leave a comment!


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I'm Jothan Yeager and I am The Bald Gourmet. After years of experimenting in my kitchen, creating delicious food and eating at amazing places around the world, I wanted a place to share my experiences with everyone. Thus the Bald Gourmet was born. I hope to open the doors of great food and great cooking to you, to inspire you to reach beyond prepared boxed meals, and to teach you of a world of deliciousness that has brought joy to me and those around me. Please enjoy the adventure which is The Bald Gourmet and share it with those you love.