Elderberries don’t grow wild where I live in New Mexico. But just a few hundred miles north, in Denver, I find plenty of elderberries, and I think it’s worth the drive.
There are two general categories of elders: those with blue/black fruit and those with red fruit. Red fruited elderberries are considered poisonous by many, although that may not actually be the case. According to Sam Thayer (Nature’s Garden, 2010), the taste of the red fruit, however, is so inferior as to make it unworthy of the time it takes to harvest and process it.
In contrast, several species of blue/black fruited elderberries are not only safe to eat, but highly recommended. In Europe, Sambucus nigra is the dominant species. In the eastern two thirds of the United States, you’re most likely to find S. canadensis. Both have dark blue, almost black fruit and there is some controversy over whether they are separate species or varieties of a single species. Some foragers claim that the fruit of S. nigra has a stronger flavor than that of S. canadensis, but I have no personal experience with this comparison.
In the western United States, the most common species is S. caerulea and in the desert southwest, S. mexicana. Both of these have blue fruit with a white bloom similar to that of grapes. Again, there is disagreement as to whether these are two distinct species and some authorities list S. mexicana as a synonym for S. candensis.
All four of the above species (or varieties) can be harvested and processed in the same way, although taste varies among the four. Only the flowers and ripe fruit are considered edible; all other parts of the elder contain cyanogenic glycosides, which, when consumed in large amounts, can result in cyanide poisoning. So please, don’t go around chewing on vast quantities of elderberry twigs and leaves. Raw elderberry fruit contains smaller amounts of these same compounds but many people eat them without complain, myself included. To be perfectly safe, cook your elderberries before eating them. They taste better that way anyway.
In nature, Sambucus are often found in abundance along streams and lake shores. In Pennsylvania it almost always grows near poison ivy. Before I step up to deflower an elder, I look down to make sure I’m not stepping in poison ivy. I usually am. Feral elderberries can be large, sprawling plants, but new cultivars have been bred for interesting foliage color (purple, chartreuse) and smaller stature, making them excellent garden plants. Their flowers and fruit are just as worthy as those of the straight species, but since they’ve been bred for their foliar good looks, they usually produce fewer blooms and consequently, less fruit.
Depending on where you live, elderberries ripen in late summer to early fall. The clusters of fruit can be so heavy that they bend their branches almost to the ground. Gather the fruit as soon as it ripens to a dark, purple-blue. (You’ll have competition from the birds, so don’t wait!) Cut off the entire umbel of fruit, rinse the berries, let them dry, then pop them in the freezer.
How to Harvest & Prepare Elderberries
Once the berries are frozen, they’re easy to remove from their stems by combing your fingers through the fruit. Each berry has a substantial seed, so I like using the juice, rather than the entire fruit.
Elderberries can be juiced as you would juice any other soft fruit. Put them in a saucepan and add a little water to prevent scorching. Heat, and gently simmer until the fruit is softened, then either use a food mill to remove the seeds, or strain the juice through a jelly bag. But beware the elderberry slime!
Don’t ask me what it’s made of, because I don’t know. But I can tell you that processing elderberries leaves behind a sticky, greasy, stubborn mess that is tough to get rid of. You may read that it comes off with hot water or dishwashing detergent, but it does not! I get the best results from soaking a rag or paper towel in vegetable oil and rubbing away the slime. If you’re dealing with a slimy jellybag, soak the bag in oil, and rub the slime away with a stiff brush.
I realize this may sound like a lot of trouble, but it’s totally worth it. Elderberry juice is a deep, dark purple that is as pretty to look at as it is tasty. While raw berries taste slightly bitter or tannic, cooked fruit is sweet and mild. It’s great in jelly, syrup, and wine. Try combining it with sumac juice in a delicious foraged jelly, or use elderberry syrup poured over ice cream or in a wildcrafted cocktail.
Becky Crisswell says
THANK YOU for covering elderberry slime! That was some nasty stuff. I thought I was going to have to throw
some bowls away!
The oil worked!
It really IS nasty, isn’t it!? Glad the oil worked for you.
Walt Gunster says
Goo-Gone is a cleaning product that is mostly orange oil and it cuts the “slime” easily. Then use a detergent to get rid of the Goo-Gone-Elderberry Slime combination. It emulsifies the oil and everything washes off quickly. Bowls, everything that you could put orange oil on can be cleaned with it, including you. Walmart, Sams, and other stores similar to them sell it. A bottle goes a long way! I have no affiliation with the company, but the product is great.
I agree, goo-gone is a great product!
Kylee Cohoon says
Are the pictures you provide of fully ripe berries? Or a mixture of ripe and unripe?
The fruit in the photos is fully ripe.
Schuana Wheat says
Thank you for the advice I am dealing with the green goo
It’s a pain, I know, but at least now you know it’s normal!
So my question is. Can you cook these with the stem on, or do you remove all of the berries from the stem before you cook them?
Hi Debi, As I mentioned in the post, only the ripe fruit is edible. I often freeze the berries with the stems on, but I remove the fruit from the stems before I cook with them. Not sure that’s necessary, but since it’s so easy to do once the fruit is frozen, why not? If you’re just going for the juice, I can see where it would be convenient to toss all the berries into the pot along with the stems, and juice them that way. But I can’t speak from experience as to whether the stems might impart something undesirable to the juice in the cooking process.
Walt Gunster says
Elderberries are delicious, but the stems are very bitter. You really need to get them off the stems, even the little stems. I have made wine and jam with them. The wine is wonderful and the jam is a tasty treat. The green goo will come off easily using “goo gone” or an equivalent orange rind distillate. After getting the goo off, wash the bowl in hot soapy water and the bowl will be ready to use again. Don’t use a petroleum based goo remover if you want to use that bowl again for food. Imagine my problem cleaning a 6 gallon wine fermenting bottle with elderberry goo all over it. Took a while to get it clean but the “Goo Gone” worked. You are lucky that the berries are big. In Tennessee the wild berries are the size of a BB with seeds. BTW Vegetable oil will work on the goo but it takes more work both to get the goo off and get the stuff clean after.
Thanks for weighing in on the stems’ bitterness, Walt. It’s nice to have your expertise. And I’m with you on goo-gone. It works like a charm.
Steve Ross says
Hello. Not ever having tried Elderberries, but loving dried fruit in my breakfast, I bought from PipingRock.com a pound of “Organic Elderberry European WOLE from Bulgaria. I was very surprised not to find dried fruit, Instead they are little tiny nuggets that sort of look like mouse poop, and the instructions say to prepare as a tea. “Pour 8oz of boiling water over 1-2 teaspoons of herb. Cover and steep 3-4 minutes, strain and serve.” Is there any way to prepare these to be like a raisin or mulberry and to eat instead of preparing for tea? Thank you. I actually bought 2 packages and now have quite a bit!
Steve Ross says
Misspelled WHOLE in previous message.
So interesting. Unfortunately I can’t tell you how to work with these nuggets since I’ve never seen them, but it sounds like they’re made from dehydrated fruit. Without seeing the actual product, I can’t make any recommendations but I’m sorry you didn’t get what you were hoping for.
Leslie Frierdich says
So I made juice and strained the fruit then ground the fruit to make a spread but discovered the massively sticky goo which is why I’m here. My question is: If this happens when processing then, what happens when I eat the ground berries? That goo is all inside me now!! So glad I found the goo and will now be tossing the berries. What a shame. I do not want that stuff in my system any more than I just put in. I cannot swallow goo gone to get rid of it.! Hope I’ll be ok.
You’re right, you definitely shouldn’t swallow goo gone! 😊 As for worrying about the goo inside your stomach, that doesn’t worry me. People have been eating elderberry jam for years, although jelly is more common since getting the flesh off the seeds is pretty tedious.
I am having trouble separating the frozen berries from the tiny stems that break off as I’m rolling the berries off. How much of this do I need to pick out and is it harmful to leave in?
How do you plan to use the fruit? If you’re juicing it or using it to make wine or syrup, a few little stems won’t be a problem. You’ll be straining them out anyway. But try to get most of them.
When working with fresh elderberries, try using a fork to remove the berries from the stems. Just gently insert the fork tines into a cluster, and pop the berries off into a bowl. Don’t try to get all the berries in a cluster at once, work through a few at a time. It takes about an hour to clean a gallon of berries, once you get the hang of it. This method eliminates the problem of tiny stems in the berries, and makes it easier to process the berries for juice.
That definitely helps with fresh berries! They’re just so much easier to get off the stems after freezing…the berries practically fall off the stems. For wine, syrup, and jelly, frozen works as well as fresh, and I’m all about taking the easy way whenever possible!
Oh, sorry, to clarify:
The tiny stems are the source of much of the slimy goo.
By removing the berries this way, the stems are left behind and the slime is eliminated, or very much reduced.
Ah! Well that’s good to know, thank you.
Margaret FitzGibbon says
I tried freezing the umbrels but had the problem of picking out stems from berries as the small stems came off too.
I prefer using the same technique on very ripe UNFROZEN umbrels. Much fewer stems that way.
Glad you found something that works for you.
I always use a steam juicer to deal with elderberries with stubborn berries with stems. Steaming berries with stems inactivates toxic glycosides. The hot juice pouring from juicer is clean clear and no green slime.
Thanks for the tip! I’d love to avoid the green slime.