Mind Your Elders

Okay, we’re back to our regular programming.

On the way out of my favorite thimbleberry patch a few weeks ago, armed with a gallon of the hard-won berries—which took the better part of a day to pick and will become Recessionary Christmas presents in the form of jam —I spied a few nice specimens of the Sambucus genus, the Elderberry tree. My feet ached and I needed water, but I just had to have some. Picking the berries of this tree was an exercise in contrasts, with a gallon bag taking about five minutes to fill.

Elderberries are a common sight along the river canyons on the dry side of the Cascades and in many other places across the globe. I’m not sure exactly what species of elderberry these were, but they exhibited the glaucous bloom on the berry—that powdery white dusting visible in the photo at right—that is common in the blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea), which is apparently the most common species in eastern Washington and Oregon.

While easy to pick, the real work begins at home with the processing. Because the leaves, stems, bark, and roots of elderberries are toxic, you must be sure to remove any non-berry debris before cooking. The stems in particular require attention. As you pull off the berries, try to remove as many of the tag-along stems as possible.

Elderberry Syrup

Family recipes for elderberry syrup abound. I found one that included fresh ginger and another that relied on a healthy dose of vodka. Two of the main considerations are sweetness and viscosity. For thicker syrup, use less water and cook down. Add sugar to taste.

For my syrup I hewed to the simple and direct. I added enough water to the pot of berries so that they were swimming but not entirely covered (in retrospect, I could have used a little less water). After bringing the berry-water mixture to a boil I let it simmer for 30 minutes, periodically working it with a potato masher. This got dumped into a food mill and cranked, removing the skins, and then strained once more to oust the seeds. The resulting 4 cups of juice went back into the pot with 2 1/2 cups of sugar, half a packet of pectin, and the juice of 1 small lemon. I brought it to a boil, killed the heat, and stirred until the foam was gone, then ladled into jars to be processed in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Your mileage may vary. My advice is to to tinker until you’re happy. Pectin isn’t necessary; I used it because I was in a hurry. The resulting syrup was aces over yogurt. Ice cream will be next, then maybe a cocktail of some sort…

10 thoughts on “Mind Your Elders

  1. colette

    I’m not a forager though I might like to be. I can’t seem to get past my hesitance that something might be poisonous or toxic. For example, I think I have elder berry growing in my yard. I was finally excited to maybe try harvesting something wild, then I saw your comment about the stems, leaves, etc, of elderberry being toxic. Is that a common leap that people have to make — trusting themselves to get it right?

  2. LC

    Colette – Discretion is certainly the better part of valor in the world of foraging. It’s best to know exactly what you’re eating before you eat it. That said, it’s not hard to learn. With elderberries, as long as you take the time to remove stems and other debris that tags along, then cook your catch, you’ll be fine. People all over the world have been making elderberry syrups, jams, cordials, etc for centuries, so try to overcome the intimidation factor and enjoy a delicious treat from the wild.

  3. Heather

    Don’t forget to return to your patch in the spring for flowers! Elderflower cordial is lovely with a little Prosecco and a few drops of Peychaud bitters (I call this cocktail the “caddisfly nymph”). Plus you use it to make a nice salve for bee stings and nettle bites.

  4. Dicentra

    Are there any plants that are easily confused with blue elderberry? Like Colette, I’m a bit paranoid (and I have a bit of a botany background even!). I also have access to HUGE elderberry bushes… I just want to get it right.

  5. Farmboots

    My family makes Elderberry Jelly and it is delicious. We use a juicer to get elderberry juice, which can be canned up to make jelly now or at a later date.

    I did not know the stems, leaves, etc. are toxic. Glad you mentioned it. Will be sure to keep them out of the steamer, but we have had the stems and a couple leaves in there before and not had any problems. They get strained out, but I imagine they could be an issue if left in the juicer. So…no more stems and leaves.

    Thank you so much for this article.

  6. Farmboots

    One trick to share. To easily remove those little stems from elderberry, huckleberry, blueberry, etc.

    Just place your berries in the freezer for just a bit (30 minutes or so). They should be slightly hard. Then roll them across a clean kitchen towel (no fuzzy towels) and the stems stick to the towel and removes the majority of them quickly and easily.

  7. Farmer Lady

    How about the RED elderberries that are all over NW Oregon? I have been trying to find out if I can use them, but the info on the web is so conflicting! From OSU I was informed I could use them after cooking. But many other foraging sites I found say “NO! don’t use them! They are poisonous!” Now I’m just confused…
    Do you have any experience using the RED elderberries? (S. racemosa).

    1. Langdon Cook

      Farmer Lady – I haven’t used red elderberries for precisely the same reasons you list. Hearsay suggests it’s possible to cook out any toxins in jellies or jams, but without a definitive authority on he subject I’m hesitant to experiment, especially when delicious blues are only a hop over the mountains away.


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