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.