Each season I am devoting myself to learning more about a specific wild food found in my local area. This summer (and late spring) it was the season of the Elder. Elderberries (or Sambucus) are a type of shrub or small tree. There is a native Australian variety with yellow berries found in tropical rainforest regions. However, the purple/black varieties found in the more temperate areas of Australia are originally from the northern hemisphere and have either been intentionally planted, or naturalised through seed dispersal by birds. It is actually a fortunate thing for those wanting to forage elderberries that most are not native since it is against the law in Australia to pick wild grown native plants.
Elder is an interesting plant. It is both toxic and medicinal as well as offering a unique taste that is very trendy in gourmet foods and drinks. The edible parts are the fully ripe berries – but only after cooking and the flowers. Do not consume any other part of the plant including leaves, twigs, roots or unripe or raw berries they are toxic.
Identifying and Picking
I found it best to identify elder trees for the first time when they were in flower. They are easily spotted from a moving car when they are full of the white small clusters of flowers. In the region of Victoria, Australia where I live, there many of them beside roads in old country hedgerows and even along the highway. I’ve found that generally areas where there are a lot of other introduced plants such as blackberries, hawthorn and apples there are more likely to have elder, than areas with dense native eucalyptus bushland.
Be careful not to confuse elderflowers with the very poisonous hemlock which is not a tree but a herby plant (which can get quite tall) and will often be found in the same location with very similar looking umbel shaped flower clusters. Hemlock has feathery leaves similar to a carrot and won’t grow into a tree, whereas elder has more lobe shaped leaves. Best to find an elder that is tree-sized to get familiar with the shape of the leaves so you don’t have to worry so much if you find a younger or smaller plant later.
Foraging for the flowers is easy. Just pick whole clusters once most of the flowers are
open and take them home to process. Remember that any flower you pick won’t form berries, so if you have a limited number of trees, make sure to leave some behind (if there are unopened clusters these can be the ones left for berries).
A high-tech foragers tip is also to record the location of trees or bushes that you find in an app such as google maps. This will make relocating the trees when it is berry season a simple task since at that stage, the trees become much more difficult to identify from a moving car. The elderflowers were blooming in my part of western Victoria in late November this year, so probably late spring is the best time to look for them.
For the berries you want to wait until they are a very dark purplish black in colour which is when they are ripe. It isn’t worth your time harvesting clusters until the majority of the berries are ripe since unripe ones will need to be discarded due to their toxicity. The berries were ripe in my region in late January.
Put fully ripe elderberries in a saucepan with double the volume of water. Boil until the liquid has reduced 50%. Strain out the berries and discard, keeping the liquid. Cool and once it is room temperature add raw honey – about the same volume as you had berries. Store in the freezer for preservation (up to a year). I find that if you have enough honey it won’t freeze solid making it very easy to scoop out a teaspoon or two as you need.
Store freshly harvested elderflower clusters in a single layer on paper on a flat surface such as a cookie sheet. Keep in a dry, cool and dark location. Once the flowers are completely dry remove them from the stems (discarding the stems) and store in an airtight container (add some kind of desiccant sachet if you have one spare from a packet of nori or something). Use to make tea or add to other foods or drinks for flavouring. I find it is lovely in a 2nd ferment for kombucha.
Fill a glass jar ¾ full with elderflowers (fresh or dried). Fill the jar with vodka. Store in a cool, dark location and give the jar a shake every day. After 1 month strain out the flowers and retain the liquid for medical or cocktail use.
Other recipes from elsewhere on the web:
There are a plethora of websites that tout the benefits of elderberry and elderflower for a variety of ailments including recovery from cold and flu, sinus infections, sore eyes and diabetes. Most of these treatments however are yet to have scientific evidence with the major exception being the treatment of upper respiratory illness (cold and flu) with elderberries. There is also some preliminary experimental evidence that elderflowers (and to a lesser extent) elderberries may have the ability to inhibit bacterial infection (1). In several clinical studies it has been found that taking elderberry syrup, tincture or extract the duration of the common cold or influenza was significantly shorten and that the symptoms during the period of illness were diminished in comparison to a placebo (2,3). This may be due to immunomodulating polysaccharides which boost the immune system to fight off the virus (4). This suggests the benefits of using elderberries or elderflower to fight cold and flu is that unlike many other over the counter medicines, it appears to assist in true recovery rather than symptom masking.
In our household we keep jars of the elderberry syrup in our freezer and when we feel symptoms of a cold or flu, take a tsp or so of it a few times a day (still frozen usually for efficiency since it isn’t fully solid). While this is still a relatively new practice for us, our limited experience would seem to suggest a faster recovery than with no syrup. Finn, our 3 year old also loves it and it is very easy to get him to have it. In fact he requests it more often that I wish to dish it out, not because it would have any ill effect on him – since the recipe also functions as a desert topping, but because I want our supplies to last us the whole year.
Propagating your Own from Cuttings of Wild Plants
It might be useful to have a ready source of elder on your own property so take the opportunity when foraging for the flowers to take material for propagation. Simply take a few of the softwood branches from the plant. Make angular cuts producing sections of branch that are about 10cm each with a few leaves on each cut section. If there are more than a few leaves on a section remove some so the plant can put its energy into growing roots.
Place the cuttings into a jar of water. Plain tap water is fine, with the jar placed somewhere like a kitchen window sill and leave until roots grow that are several centimeters long. Then plant the cuttings into moist soil in pots. Continue to grow in pots until you see new green growth on the cuttings then plant outside.
It is always a good idea to take more cuttings than you need as some may not survive or continue to grow once they are potted up.
(1) Hearst, Caroline, et al. “Antibacterial activity of elder (Sambucus nigra L.) flower or berry against hospital pathogens.” Journal of Medicinal Plants Research 4.17 (2010): 1805-1809.
(2) Tiralongo, Evelin, Shirley S. Wee, and Rodney A. Lea. “Elderberry supplementation reduces cold duration and symptoms in air-travellers: A randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.” Nutrients 8.4 (2016): 182.
(3) Zakay-Rones, Z., et al. “Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.” Journal of International Medical Research 32.2 (2004): 132-140.
(4) Ho, G. T. T., Ahmed, A., Zou, Y. F., Aslaksen, T., Wangensteen, H., & Barsett, H. (2015). Structure–activity relationship of immunomodulating pectins from elderberries. Carbohydrate polymers, 125, 314-322.
I am not a medical doctor or trained herbalist. All the information presented in this article is from my own online research and experience and should not be taken as advice, medical or otherwise. If you choose to forage or consume elder you do so at your own risk.