As always, I’m going to start this article with the standard caveat: Be very careful whenever you harvest a natural or wild fruit or berry. Only 10 percent of wild berries are safe to eat. The other 90 percent are toxic — and some like belladonna or deadly nightshade are downright poisonous.
Unfortunately, this applies to some degree with elderberries. There are two varieties. One has a red look when ripe and the other has a blue tone. The blue ones are safe to eat. The red ones can be toxic. The blue variety is referred to as Sambucus candensis. The red variety is referred to as Sambucus pubens. Don’t eat the red ones, look for the blue ones. They’ll often have a frosty, white coating as they mature.
You should know as well that the leaves, stems and roots of elderberries are toxic. It’s enough to make you think twice about harvesting this fruit, but hey, rhubarb stalks taste great and the leaves are poisonous. You just have to know what you’re doing.
We’re going to cover finding, harvesting and processing elderberries. The processing step essentially involves reducing the berries to a juice that can be made into elderberry juice, elderberry syrup and elderberry jelly. But you may want to think twice before grabbing a handful of wild elderberries and chomping them down.
For one, the berries are a bit tart. I would say they’re similar to wild grapes. The other thing you’ll find is they have very thin, almost sliver-like seeds. If you have any gaps in your teeth, you’ll be looking at about 10 minutes of flossing after chewing a handful. That’s why the first step for any elderberry recipe is juicing the fruit.
Elderberries are a bushy plant that grows from 6 to 16 feet tall. They mature throughout the summer, which makes them a great wild berry to harvest. Unlike other berries like mulberries, black-raspberries and black berries — which have a limited growing season of 2 to 3 weeks — elderberries show up from July through September in many parts of North America.
The berries are easy to harvest in bunches tossed into a basket and unlike some wild berries, there are no thorns. There are various ways for separating the berries, from using a wide-toothed comb to simply pulling them off with your hands. Pick out any stems and wash them thoroughly and you’re ready to take the first step: Creating elderberry juice. Look for them growing in fields and forests and maybe you’ll be surprised to find one in your backyard. Cast some of the berries around and you’ll have a steady harvest over the years.
We’re going to cover three basic elderberry recipes – two that can be used for medicinal purposes and a third that is simply delicious:
- Elderberry juice.
- Elderberry syrup.
- Elderberry jelly.
All three of these recipes are easy to make, but first you must extract the juice. The good news is that this is a simple and basic process using a saucepan, some water and a potato masher. It’s a very off-grid approach and you definitely don’t want to use a food processor.
Elderberry Juice Recipe
- 1 cup of elderberries
- 1 cup of water
- Sugar, honey of other sweetener to suit your taste
Place the elderberries and the water in a saucepan. You can scale this up if you have a lot of elderberries. The basic combination is one cup of water to every cup of elderberries. Bring the water/elderberry combination to a gentle boil and begin mashing the berries with a potato masher.
After a few minutes of mashing, pour the elderberry/water mix into a fine sieve over a bowl and gently mash with a spoon to extract as much juice as possible. Discard the mash. I usually toss it on the compost heap.
You now have elderberry juice, but your first taste will be quite tart. If you’re the tart type, go for it. I like to add a little sugar or honey to sweeten it up.
Elderberry Syrup Recipe
This is actually a highly effective, natural medicine. It’s been used for hundreds of years to treat coughs, colds and flu, and we’re going to take it up a notch with an infusion of willow bark. Elderberries are very high in vitamin C and by their nature help the auto-immune system. This recipe also has honey as a key component, which is also a natural remedy, and then there’s the willow bark component. The inner layer of willow bark, referred to as the xylem layer, has high concentrations of an element known as “salicin.” Salicin is the active ingredient in aspirin. In fact, it was a German chemist named Augustus Bayer who first synthesized salicin to make a product now known as Bayer Aspirin.
You can leave out the willow bark step if you’re just trying to make syrup for pancakes, but if you want a very effective cough syrup for coughs, colds sore throat and flu, the willow bark infusion might be a good idea.
- 1 cup of elderberry juice
- 1 cup of honey
- 1 cup or water
- (To make a willow bark infusion add 1 tablespoon of shaved xylem from the inner, heartwood layer of a willow tree in hot water for 30 minutes and strain.)
Add all ingredients to a sauce pan and heat to a gentle boil for 10 minutes, stirring regularly. Pour into glass, canning jars and process in boiling water for 25 minutes. Store in a refrigerator or fruit cellar for up to one year. Once opened, keep refrigerated and it should last for up to a month.
Elderberry Jelly Recipe
- 3 cups of elderberry juice
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 box fruit pectin
- 4 1/2 cups sugar
Boil the ingredients for one minute and pour into canning jars. Process in a hot, boiling water bath with jars totally immersed for 25 minutes. Remove jar or jars and let cool. Store in a root cellar or fridge.
Have you ever cooked with elderberry? What advice would you add? Share it in the section below: