The weather here in central Maryland continues to weigh hot and humid, with no sign of appreciable rain. The complete opposite of last year in fact, which was cool and soaking wet – the one year my tomato plants literally drowned because the ground couldn’t absorb any more water to give air to their waterlogged roots. But one local wild edible appears to be doing just fine, thank you very much, heat and drought be damned. It feels like all I do anymore is harvest elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).
I knew elderberry was an important wild food in this area. During previous winters, I used Sambucol for the flu, so I was aware of elderberry’s anti-viral reputation. For this reason, I opted not to collect any of the elderflowers this spring because I didn’t know what kind of berry harvest I would get, and didn’t want to risk diminishing the berries by eating the flowers. So I passed on the many options for elderflower liqueur, elderflower fritters, and the like.
In retrospect, I could’ve spared a few of the flower umbels. Because I just cannot keep up with the bounty of fruit!
Before you try harvesting or using elderberry, be forewarned: the purple juice will end up on EVERYTHING. Berries will fall onto the floor where you will accidentally step on them, or they will roll under the table to cause problems later. The counter top will be stained. Your fingers will be stained. If you unwisely wore flip-flops while harvesting, the bottoms of your feet will also be purple. Hopefully you realize it before you track purple footprints across your kitchen!
All I’m doing with it is freezing it for now. Since this is my first harvest, I don’t know the total quantity of yield I might end up with. Only, the yield so far is such that I am sloppier and more wasteful with the harvest than I really should be. Every few days I spend hours picking soaking, washing and drying the elderberries … just to freeze them for later use!
Picking elderberries will get easier in future years, because I didn’t prune the lower canes, and I left more canes than was really necessary. This resulted in a lot of overgrowth making it hard to reach a lot of the berry clusters. I’ll be more discriminating with the pruning shears this winter.
The elderberry fruit are ripe when they are black. Elderberry shrubs have fruit clusters that ripen at different times, and even within one cluster of fruit there will be berries at different stages of ripeness. You have to make a judgement call as to when enough berries are black to make the cluster worth harvesting.
At first, I picked a few slightly-less-ripe clusters and brought them inside to finish ripening on my counter. I read some authors use this as a strategy to prevent birds from eating their whole crop. There was no doubt the birds had visited my elderberry as well, based on mostly bare stems in the upper branches.
But as I collected more and more fruit, I had less and less space for indoor ripening, and right now I am only picking almost-completely-ripe clusters. This does mean I miss a few umbels that reach “raisin” stage before I can harvest them.
One challenge I have encountered is that slightly unripe fruit is reddish… but slightly overripe fruit is also reddish. (By overripe, I mean slightly fermenting on their own rather than shriveling up like an elderberry raisin.) I have noticed that overripe fruit smells slightly chocolatey (maybe due to the tannins in the berries?). Also some sources suggest looking for a red tint to the stems as an indicator of ripeness. There is also a red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) but its berries are VERY red, and it is uncommon in this part of Maryland.
From what I have read, a lot of folks put the berries straight in the freezer if they cannot prepare them right away, but I always soak mine first. Soaking in soapy water is a mandatory step for me personally. We have an infestation of spotted wing drosophila here, a variety of fruit fly that actually prefers fresh fruit over rotting fruit. Their little white offspring can also be found in our blackberries and raspberries. A drop of dish soap in a bowl of water and a little time is all it takes to kill the larvae and as a result they come out of the fruit they had burrowed into. The soap helps break up the water’s surface tension; otherwise tiny air pockets would allow the larvae to survive their bath. [EDITED May 2021 – I no longer take the extra time to soak the berries in soapy water. I just consider any fruit fry larvae to be bonus protein!] [EDITED August 2021 – Never mind, yes I do, because those little white larvae still gross me out.]
I read one recipe for elderberry wine which said that when you soak berries, the bad ones will rise to the top and then you can scoop or skim them out. In my experience so far, bad berries – the ones which are overripe and going bad, mostly – sometimes float and sometimes sink. I always scoop out the floating ones, but then I have to paw through the berries at the bottom to remove more of the ones past their prime.
After soaking the berries, I rinse them thoroughly to remove the soap and then let them drying in a metal mesh strainer. Going through them like this gives me a chance to remove some of the stems, underripe and overripe berries. Once they are dry(ish), I spread the berries on a few paper towels on a cookie sheet and then freeze them. I remove more of the stems after they are frozen, because frozen berries are hard and easier to handle. I literally use the wide side of a plastic comb to comb the berries off the stems. I have to work quickly though, because the berries start to thaw the moment they come out of the freezer. They become even squishier, which means even more likely to stain everything purple!
So far I have about four pounds of elderberries in the freezer. I will definitely make an elderberry syrup with some of them. Forage, Harvest, Feast has two recipes – one fermented and one cooked – and I might try both just to see how they compare. (Although berries for the fermented syrup apparently should not be frozen first, to preserve the naturally occurring yeast … which means manually de-stemming soft black berries for who knows how long to get sufficient quantity! Also, my soaking step may remove too much of the natural yeast as well. At least the fruit fly larvae will die happy!) I might make a blackberry & elderberry jam, since blackberry is the other fruit I have in excessive quantities at the moment. (Of course, I personally don’t eat jam so TBD.) I am not sure I will have quite enough for elderberry wine, but we’ll see… maybe I can save some from this year and harvest enough next year.
Remember that stems and seeds and unripe fruit are all toxic. The seeds contain a cyanide precursor which is neutralized when the berries are heated, which is why you should never eat elderberries raw. (From reading Viljoen’s book, it seems that fermentation also neutralizes the toxins.) Despite those assurances, even after cooking, I may use a food mill to extract most of the seeds.
Earlier this year I planted a second (or maybe third) elderberry in my slowly growing food forest. Since elderberries sucker profusely, I have no way to know if the existing elderberry shrub(s) are genetically the same, or two separate plants that just grew close to one another. Having at least one plant which is genetically different can help boost pollination and subsequently berry production. Although I don’t know what I’ll do if I get even more berries! Plus, with the way the weather has fluctuated from year to year, past performance is not an indicator of future results!
Have you harvested elderberries, wild or otherwise? What’s your favorite recipe for them?