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So I have a new obsession: Elderberry foraging. Last weekend we attempted to go canoeing and fishing at a mountain lake but were rained out. Lucky for us there were a whole bunch of wild black elderberry bushes dotting the edge of the dirt road that wound up the mountain. We were able to wild harvest quite a few elderberries that day. Then the next day we drove up into the mountains to scout for archery hunting season and found a bunch of wild blue elderberry bushes to harvest. On top of that, both days we were at a high enough elevation that we found a bunch of huckleberry bushes loaded down with sweet, juicy, purple berries. We were in wild berry foraging heaven!
I’ve mentioned in other posts that my favorite book for identifying wild edibles is this one. This book was so helpful for me when first learning how to identify elderberry plants and a wide variety of other wild edibles.
Elderberry, or Sambucus, is a shrub in the honeysuckle family. They can grow as tall as ten feet and are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the winter. The elderberry flower is an easy way to spot these shrubs in the spring and early summer. Just drive up a dirt road in the mountains and look for a tall shrub covered with clusters of white flowers. From a distance the flowers look like one big flower head, but when you look closely you can see they are a cluster of tiny white flowers. They have a unique smell and I’ve heard they make a great jelly.
The Elderberry shrubs have a distinct leaf pattern and can be easily spotted along the dirt roads that crisscross the mountains in our area. Once you become familiar with the leaf pattern and are able to identify an elderberry shrub, you will be amazed at how often you see them. Here in Montana, the elderberry shrubs are typically ready to harvest in late August or early September.
In our area, the most common types of elderberry shrubs are black elderberry and blue elderberry. The black elderberry looks more like a very dark purple.
I actually see the blue elderberry most often and they are quite distinct in the fall when the shrubs are loaded down with beautiful light blue berries. They are especially beautiful once the elderberry shrub starts losing its leaves in the fall so the vivid light blue berries are really eye catching.
Interestingly I noticed that the black elderberries produced a dark purple red color when squished raw. The blue elderberry had more of a clear juice inside when raw, but once cooked they turned a vivid deep purple red color just like the black elderberry. It was quite fascinating!
Like any wild edible foraging you plan to do, it is important to know if there are any harmful properties in what you are harvesting. This book I use says that “Generally, raw elderberries are considered inedible and cooked elderberries edible.” There is also a warning in the book stating “The stems, bark, leaves and roots contain poisonous cyanide-producing glycosides (especially when fresh) which cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea” Interestingly the book also mentions Native Americans used the other parts of the shrub for a variety of things so go figure!
When heading out to forage for elderberries, be sure to bring along a bunch of bags or buckets. Elderberries hang in clusters which take some time to pull off each individual berry. We found that the easiest way to harvest elderberries is to snap the branch off just above the berry cluster. I used a knife the first few times but then found that the branches snap quite easily and it was quicker to snap the branch off by hand.
If you are harvesting an elderberry shrub that is hanging full of ripe berries, be gentle! The berries easily fall off of the branch with the slightest touch. This makes for some very careful elderberry harvesting to make sure you get more berries than the ground below! We found a few elderberry shrubs where the berries weren’t fully ripe. We harvested the berries and let them sit on a windowsill for a few days until fully ripened.
Removing elderberries from the branches can be tedious. One trick I learned is to tap the elderberry cluster on the inside of a bowl to allow all the ripe berries to just fall off the stems into the bowl. To remove any elderberries that are left on the stem, gently pull your hand over the cluster and the berries will just fall off. I’ve heard of people using a comb or fork to remove elderberries but I wasn’t too fond of this method since my bare hands removed the berries better.
Once all the elderberries are removed from the stems, place them in a bowl or sink and rinse with water. Many of the elderberries we harvested still had the small dried elderberry flower head attached to the bottom of the berry. Rinsing them in water will allow any little bugs or dried flower heads to rise to the top and can easily be skimmed off. We also found a few little inch worms that had hitched a ride on our elderberries!
Medicinal Elderberry Syrup. Our primary reason for harvesting elderberries is for medicinal purposes since they are full of Vitamins A and C, Calcium, Potassium and Iron. Our wild edibles book mentions that they contain anti-viral compounds that may be useful in treating influenza. During cold and flu season, we take a daily dose of homemade elderberry syrup to boost our immune systems and keep us healthy. I shared our favorite recipe for elderberry syrup this winter (if you missed it, you can find our elderberry syrup recipe here ).
Elderberry Juice. This year we also made a batch of elderberry juice. This process was similar to making elderberry syrup but without the spices and honey added. To make elderberry juice:
1. Place two cups of fresh berries and four cups of water in a sauce pan.
2. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes. Use a spoon to mash the berries on the side or bottom of the pan. (I tried using a potato masher but the berries were too small so a spoon worked better.)
I like to wrap up the elderberries in the cheesecloth and squeeze out as much juice as possible. The elderberry juice is tart so you can add sweetener like honey if you plan to drink it.
4. Refrigerate or freeze your elderberry juice for use. I froze a quart jar of unsweetened elderberry juice to use for a big batch of homemade elderberry syrup once we harvest honey from our beehives in the next few weeks. I also froze unsweetened elderberry juice in an ice cube tray and placed the cubes in a bag in the freezer. This way I have small quantities of elderberry juice to add to things like homemade fruit snacks and smoothies.
You can also make elderberry jelly and pie, although we haven’t tried either of these yet. We’re hoping to do more elderberry foraging in the next few weeks so if we find more, I think we’ll try making some homemade elderberry jelly.
I’m amazed at how abundant the elderberry shrubs are in the mountains around us. These beautiful, vitamin rich berries are easy to find along most mountain roads in our area and provide a variety of medicinal uses. Hopefully all these free foraged fruits will help keep us healthy all winter long!
Do you forage for elderberries? What are your favorite ways to use elderberries?