This seems to be the year of Elderberry Madness– we have a huge crop over here, and so many people are becoming more attuned to their environments, finding their local elderberries, and wanting to use them. So I thought it would be fun to share a bunch of ideas about what to do with elderberries– and the basics of picking and getting them ready to use.
Elderberries are a fantastic food with a lot of great medicinal properties. They are most well-known for being a powerful immunity booster. Elderberries are full of antioxidants (carotenoids and flavonoids,) as well as rutin, and vitamins A, B and C.
Elderberries have traditionally been used in the following ways:
- to lower cholesterol
- to improve vision
- to boost the immune system
- to improve heart health
- for coughs, colds, and flu
- for bacterial and viral infections like tonsillitis
- to treat arthritis
- as an anti-inflammatory
Not only are they really good for you, but they are just delicious. We love to gather lots of elderberries at this time of the year (September and October) to make both food, drinks, and medicine. Elderberry Wine was the very first wine I attempted, and I was honestly really amazed by how well it turned out– definitely worth trying!
Just a quick safety note on foraging elderberries (sambucus nigra)… Elder trees are poisonous. The bark and leaves and the woodier parts of the stems contain cyanide, and should never be eaten. The same is true for the unripe berries (the flowers are edible and medicinal, however.) Always look for bunches that are completely black/purple, and skip the little green berries. I usually look for clusters that even have an elderberry “raisin” or two. Mild symptoms of stomach ache and vomiting have been reported after the consumption of unripe elderberries, so be aware. I have undoubtedly missed a few green berries when cooking with them, and never had any negative effects, but this is something to keep in mind.
To find elderberries, look for a medium sized tree or shrub with distinctive rough bark, bright green colored pinnate leaves with 5-9 leaflets. As the berries ripen, the stems often turn a beautiful bright pink/ red– but some will remain green. They are ripe between June and October, depending on where you live.
Pick the clusters by breaking off the large stem– it should snap off of the branch easily. Keep an eye out for spiders and snails on your berries, and pick them off, if possible, before bagging them. Put your collection into a bag– we like to re-use a plastic bag for this, so the juice doesn’t leak.
When you get home, you can strip the berries off of the stems with a fork right away, or freeze them. After freezing, you would also use a fork to remove them, although they will come off more easily, and some will fall just from shaking. Once de-stemmed, fill your bowl with water and a splash of vinegar to wash them. Stir them around gently with your hand, and most of the green or dried berries and leaves will float to the top. I use a small strainer to scoop these out, and put them into the compost bin. Rinse a couple times with cold water, and remove any other debris that rises to the top, and then drain.
After washing them, you can use them right away, freeze, or dry them. I have put them in a warm, sunny spot on parchment paper to dry, but using a dehydrator (like this one) would be much better (if I had one!)
Once you have your berries ready to use, there are so many things you can do with them! And if you don’t have elderberries in your area, you can of course order dried elderberries. The general rule is to use about half as much as called for in the recipe, when using dried instead of fresh.
Recipes Using Elderberries
- Elderberry Winter Tonic
- Elderberry & Rosehips Tonic
- Elderberry Tincture
- Elderberry tea can be made by drying elderberries and steeping them. I keep mine in a jar and add them to other herbs in a teapot like this one.
- Elderberry Gummies are really easy to make using elderberry syrup/ tonic and grassfed gelatin. Here are several versions.
- Pontack Sauce (a.k.a. Elderberry Ketchup)
- Elderberry & Crabapple Jelly
- Elderberry Chutney
- Elderberry Popsicles
- Elderberry Jelly
- Elderberry Jam
- Elderberry Ice Cream
- Chocolate Elderberry & Rosehip Ice Cream
- Roasted Pears with Meyer Lemons and Elderberry Glaze
Common Sense Caution: Don’t go around eating plants you are not familiar with. Do some research first to make sure you know what it is. Google image search is your friend! I have a good collection of foraging books to help me spot edibles and avoid toxic plants. Here are a few I recommend: Food for Free, Foraging and Feasting, The Forager’s Harvest.
If you are interested in more foraging posts and ideas, you can check out my foraging board on Pinterest , and click here to see foraging posts on And Here We Are….
I’m too lazy to make soda or anything so I usually just cover the berries with gin or vodka and then dole it out during the winter diluted in some other non-alcoholic drink when we feel a cold coming on. We grow our own but have to beat the birds to the ripe ones.
They look like NC poke berries (poison!)….I’m afraid I won’t know the difference!!!
poke berries are neatly arranged along a stem where elderberries are on a full umbel of stem that all join back at one point
Look at pics of each. You’ll easily see the difference
My daughter and I have been learning to forage lately. I believe I’ve seen these, not 100%. So I will put positively identifying this plant at the top of my list. I’m curious what the flavour is.
I love elderberries… to my it is kind of a cross between a grape/blueberry flavor… Make excellent Jelly and Syrups. If you have choke cherry trees where you live the combination of those are amazing too. I Haven’t ever gotten a large enough crop to freeze the berries but that would be amazing in muffins! I have canned or froze juice to use later and it holds up excellent too.
Wilbur Gangaway says
My favorite pie is elderberry pie. I use the same recipe that I use for a blueberry pie. Need 4 cups of berries. Wilbur
I am intresteded in find out about the medical for vision, and sugar, and arthritis
hi, for vision and arthritis how would you use elderberries? Thanks Wayne
Denise Holcomb says
HI, so you stated that the green unripe berries are poisonous and they float on top of water when washing them. What about the berries that aren’t quite black, but float at the top also? Stevia they ok or do I throw the money away also?
Denise Holcomb says
Ok..disregard the last sentence! Stupid autocorrect! Ha! Suppose to say …are they ok or do I throw them away also?
If it’s not very many floating on top, just scoop them all out. But if you have lots of fairly ripe ones floating, leave them. This is one of those cases where you’ll have to make a judgement call! I have personally not been super picky about this part.
Kid playing in and near the woods, I would forage all day so I didn’t have to go home to eat. One of my last stops was the elderberry tree/bush. I would eat as many as I could reach as long as I was still a little hungry and never had any problem. But when I would try to bring some home, mom would make me eat them outside, cuz she didn’t want them staining anything in the house LOL
Can you keep the berries after cooking them
Karen Andrews says
I have a bag of dried elderberries. Can I rehydrate them to make a pie? How would I do that? Thanks for your help!
I’m sorry but I don’t have any experience with making elderberry pie, much less doing it with dehydrated berries. If you do decide to try it, please come let us know how it went!
Ruth MURDOCH says
I make elderberry and apple pie, I just put a layer of elderberries over the apples, they fall into the gaps between apple pieces and bake as a normal apple pie. There is a lot of juice from them but it’s oh so tasty.
A rule of thumb is to use half as many dried berries as fresh. You could even soak them in water and hydrate them before adding to the recipe. Someone in here said they soak theirs in gin or vodka. I seem to recall Jen having some healthful properties, because of what it’s made from which I don’t remember right now. Or you could soak them in rum or anything you wanted to have in the flavor of your pie, instead of just water.
I make syrup with dried elderberries. I was wondering if I could use the “spent” berries in some way, such as in bran muffins. Anyone know or have any ideas? TIA