What are Elderberries?
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.
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.
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.
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.