Foraging for Elderberries
Elderberries are all over the place here. Since they make fabulous jam and syrup, we went and picked a bunch last Saturday.
We just moved to the area, so we were afraid it would be a bit of a wild goose chase to find ‘good spots’ to pick elderberries. No problem there – we found so many elderberry bushes, we filled all our buckets in two hours, and we barely skimmed the surface with the amount of elderberries we found.
All the bushes we picked from were most likely the species Sambucus caerulea, known as “blue elderberry”. (It is often considered a subspecies of S. nigra sub. caerulea. It depends on who you talk to.) It grows 30 feet high and has dark purple berries that look grayish-blue because of a light waxy coating that covers them. The flowers are white or cream in color, on umbels that are nearly flat across the top when you turn them sideways. They are not as pleasantly odorous as other elderberry flowers.
This species is native on the west coast of North America, from British Columbia to California. (Other areas of North America & Europe have a different varieties of native elderberries – see below for species description.)
We’ve seen for ourselves just how abundant it is in this area. They are everywhere! We were in a small wild area, in between farmland, about a quarter mile from the river. Every 5-20 feet we would come upon another elderberry bush. It was impossible to pick all the elderberries. Plus, the bushes grew so tall, we could only harvest the lowest 7 or 8 feet. The birds will still have plenty to eat if they get hungry for elderberries.
If elderberries grow in your area, look for them along less-traveled roads and in riparian areas. Elderberries do like damp soil, generally, and plenty of sunlight. That should give you some clues where to start looking for them.
(It would be best not to pick them along well-traveled roads. The pollutants near major roadways, from exhaust, weed sprays, etc. have likely contaminated plants in those areas.)
Elderberries do contain poisonous cyanic compounds contained in the stems, leaves, roots, and seeds. The berries are edible when they’re ripe and cooked. A handful of uncooked elderberries will generally have no ill effects, but if you eat too many, especially on an empty stomach, you’ll likely get sick.
The flowers are also edible, and have also traditionally been used to lightly flavor fritters, pancakes, scones, and cakes.
Identifying Elderberries with Certainty
If you intend to harvest the flowers, you MUST be certain to identify it properly. An inexperienced forager may mistake the flowers of the highly poisonous water hemlock for the flowers of the elderberry.
The umbelliferae (formerly apiaceae) family, commonly known as the carrot family, includes many plants that produce white, umbel (umbrella-shaped) flowers. Some are edible (carrots, parsley, etc.) and some are highly poisonous, including the water hemlock. When in doubt, DON’T eat it.
Water hemlock doesn’t produce berries. It is a herbaceous (non-woody) plant. (If it has bark, at least you’ll know it’s not a hemlock.) The leaf axils and stem nodes are often purplish. Its flowers are more open, with several little umbrella-shaped flower clusters in a spray.
Elderberry is a woody plant, with bark on its trunk and branches. It produces white or cream, flat-topped flower clusters.
Other elderberry species include:
- S. canadensis: Known as “sweet elderberry.” Flat-topped, white flower bunches. Deeply purple berries (almost black). Native on the east coast of North America, from Nova Scotia all the way south to Florida, and west to Manitoba (in Canada) and Texas (United States).
- S. ebulus: The smallest species of elderberry, growing only 3-5 feet high, and known as the “dwarf elderberry”. Native to Europe and the western parts of Asia. The flowers are white with purple anthers. Less used for food than the S. nigra.
- S. nigra: Also native to Europe. Known as “black elderberry” or “European elderberry”. One of the most-used elderberries. Used medicinally as well as for food (berries & flowers).
Picking & Preparing the Elderberries
The easiest way to pick elderberries is to use a pair of scissors or clippers and cut the entire umbel off and place it in a bucket. Then when you’ve returned home, you can gently tease the berries from the stems in comfort.
To wash the berries and remove further chaff that may be mixed in with them, gently fill the bowl with water until there is about an inch of water above the berries. Then you can run your hand carefully through the berries without damaging them, since the water is holding a lot of their weight. More chaff (stems, bits of leaf, dried flower bits, etc.) will rise to the surface. This can be easily skimmed off with a sieve. (See the video below.)
Since the stems and leaves of elderberry can poison you, you’ll want to be very thorough and clean the berries well.
If you don’t have time to turn the elderberries into jam until a few days later, as in our case, when you get them washed and cleaned, you can freeze them until you’re ready to turn them into jam.
Gently scoop handfuls of berries out of the water, and place them in freezer containers or freezer bags, and freeze.
Each 5 gallon bucket we picked yielded 2 full gallons of cleaned elderberries, so we got about 12 gallons total. That is going to make a LOT of jam, syrup, and fruit leather.
Making Elderberry Jam & Syrup
Elderberry jam is delicious. It doesn’t have as strong a flavor as blackberry or huckleberry jam… it’s more on par with blueberry jam. (This, of course, is my own estimation.) Its flavor is very pleasant, like a dullish blueberry with a bit more acidity.
We have a fabulous recipe for Elderberry Jelly & Syrup. (One of our favorite uses of this syrup is to make Lemon & Elderberry Cheesecake!)
Elderberries are loved by bees, butterflies and birds. If you don’t have elderberries in your area, you could grow your own. Learn more about growing your own elderberries.