Elderberry

by Amy Crowell

If ever the title “elder” were to be bestowed upon a wild berry, the elderberry truly deserves the honor. Hippocrates referred to this prolific plant as his “entire medicine chest;” Shakespeare hints it might be a good shelter under which to sit and watch the fairies revel on a midsummer night; and Elton John had different ideas in his 1972 song, “Elderberry Wine”: “…feeling fine on elderberry wine, those were the days we’d lay in the haze—forget depressive times.” 

References to elderberry are ubiquitous in heirloom cookbooks, ancient medicinal texts and folklore. Of course, one could argue that the ample elderberry-lore might exist because the bushes themselves are everywhere and grow like weeds in wet soils in many parts of the world. Or maybe the medicinal benefits realized long ago (and at the attention of modern science) gave this berry its magical place in our stories. Either way, the elderberry is still easy to find and bountiful in its nourishing gifts to those who are brave enough to stalk it. It also doesn’t hurt that the berries are high in vitamin C, phosphorous, potassium and antioxidants—a cocktail of good things to cure what ails us.

Elderberry plants resprout from perennial roots each spring and can grow up to five or six feet tall. The twigs, stems and leaves of the elderberry are toxic, but the incredibly fragrant blossoms (available in mid-spring) can be eaten fresh. The flowering heads are called umbels and blossom at the top of long, woody stalks. The tiny white flowers eventually become small, purplish-black ripe berries whose heaviness often causes the umbels to droop over in late summer. I’ve collected my fair share of the Sambucus canadensis berries (the most common species here in Texas) from the seat of a canoe in late August along many Central Texas rivers. 

Elderflowers can be harvested by gently brushing the tiny, white petals into a container. Sprinkle them over your salad or soup for a truly sweet and fragrant garnish. They’re also the main ingredient in elderflower cordial and wine. Beware, though: Elderberry blossoms are similar in appearance to poison hemlock flowers—refer to a good guidebook that clearly shows the difference, side by side.

When harvesting wild elderberries, it’s easiest to snip off the berry bunches all at once, throw them in a bag and de-stem them later. When the berries are at peak ripeness, they will easily detach from their stems, though it also works to freeze the clusters first, then rub the frozen solid berries off the stems. If you can’t process the berries right away, freeze them in an airtight container for up to a year. Eating raw berries is not recommended. The best way to indulge in their goodness is through juicing, steeping, mashing and extracting.

Like any fruit, elderberries can be juiced. And luckily, there’s more than one right way to do it. Whether boiling, steaming or steeping, all methods produce a purplish juice packed with all the great phytonutrients that have given the elderberry its cure-all reputation. The quickest way to produce an elderberry juice is to cover the berries with water, bring to a boil and then simmer for 10 minutes. Let cool, mash gently and strain out the solids by pouring through cheesecloth or a jelly bag. Voilà: a tart, sharp juice ready for daily shots of all the good stuff and no artificial anything. I don’t promise it will be sweet, but it will certainly be pure. Freeze the juice in an airtight container for up to a year. It’s a good tonic to save for the middle of flu season, when all the elder bushes have long since frozen back and no fresh berries can be found.

Illustration courtesy of The Printed Vintage, etsy.com/shop/ThePrintedVintage