When do elderberries ripen

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Elderberry Harvest Season: Tips For Picking Elderberries

Native to North America, the elderberry is a deciduous, suckering shrub that is predominantly harvested for its tiny edible berries. These berries are cooked down and used as syrups, jams, preserves, pies and even wine. It’s important to know when it is harvest time for elderberries, especially when making wine. Berries used for wine must be at their ripeness peak. So, when are the elderberries ripe? Read on to learn more.

Picking Elderberries and Other Info

Elderberries are easy to grow, non-invasive plants that are attractive additions to the landscape, especially with their cluster of large white flowers in the summer turning to bunches of black edible berries. The plants are very hardy into USDA growing zone 4 but with some varieties suitable to zone 3. Elderberries flower in late June, so the crop is less susceptible to late spring frosts.

A subspecies of Sambucus nigra L., the European elderberry, the common elder or American elderberry is native to central and eastern United States and southeastern Canada. Elderberries are rich in vitamin C and contain more phosphorus and potassium than any other temperate fruit crop. Traditionally, not only the berries, but the roots, stems and flowers have also been utilized medicinally. Leaf extracts have been used as insect repellents and insecticides to treat fungal disease on plants, such as powdery mildew or leaf spot.

The berries are very tiny and borne in clusters (cymes), which make any mechanical harvesting of elderberry fruit very difficult. Because of this, and also because elderberries do not transport well, elderberries have little to no commercial production. So, you will just have to plant your own!

Elderberries thrive in moist, fertile, well-drained soil. They are tolerant of a wide variety of soil types; however, they prefer those with a pH of between 5.5-and 6.5. Plant elderberry plants in the spring, spacing plants 6-10 feet apart. Because elderberries have shallow root systems, it is important to keep them well watered for the first year until they are established. You can either purchase elderberries from a nursery or propagate your own plant from cuttings taken when the plant is dormant.

If you hope to pick vast quantities of elderberries, it’s important to fertilize the elderberry. At planting, incorporate manure or compost. Thereafter, fertilize in the early spring with 1/8 pound of ammonium nitrate or 5 pounds of 10-10-10- for each year of the plants age, up to 1 pound per plant or 4 pounds of 10-10-10.

Elderberry Harvest Season

A small crop of elderberries will be produced in the plant’s first year, but the most productive harvest time for elderberries will be in their second year. This is because elderberries send up many new canes each year. The canes attain their full height within the first season and develop lateral branches in the second season. Flowers, hence fruit, are developed on the tips of the season’s growth, especially on the laterals. Therefore, second year elderberry canes are the most fruitful. By the third year, fruit production begins to wane, especially on elderberry that has not been pruned.

To retain the vigor of the plant, prune it annually. Remove any dead, broken or weak canes over three years of age in the early spring when the plant is dormant. Leave an equal number of one, two, and three year old canes.

Birds love the fruit as well, and it may be too late for harvesting elderberry fruit if you notice flocks of birds satiating themselves on your potential harvest. You may need to cover the plants with netting if you plan on a harvest for yourself.

So when are elderberries ripe? Elderberry harvest season generally occurs from mid-August to mid-September, depending upon your region and the cultivar. The clusters of berries ripen over a period of between five to 15 days. Once ripened, harvest the fruit and strip it from the cluster. Store the berries in the refrigerator and use as soon as possible. Production of elderberries on mature plants can range from 12-15 pounds per plant and as much as 12,000 pounds per acre, plenty for both bird and human consumption.

Photo by Hank Shaw

In most places, elderberries don’t come ripe until September, but in the South and Southern California they can ripen as early as late May, and here in NorCal we start getting ripe elderberries in late June. So depending on where you go, you can get ripe elderberries from May until November.

The secret to elderberries, it seems, is that they are a rolling bush: Parts of some bushes are still in flower (meaning you can still make elderflower syrup and liqueur if you hurry!) while the berries below have already ripened. Even when I picked my stash of elderflowers in May there were green berries on some.

But beware, slackers! Ripe elderberries are sweet — sweet enough that the deer like them very much. We saw a lot of nibbled-off spots on the bushes we picked from. By September I suspect the only remaining elderberries will be too high for the deer to get; and then you need to worry about birds.

Once you get your elderberries you need to take the berries off the stem, which can take some time. This is the least fun part of dealing with elderberries, but it needs to be done: The stems and leaves of the plant are toxic, and definitely bitter. You need to be patient and have a light hand, however, as the berries are fragile. Work with small portions of each cluster at a time, and gently rake your half-open hand over the berries, letting them fall into a bowl set beneath you.

Again, let me stress the word “gentle.” Unripe berries hold onto the stem, ripe ones fall off easily. And you don’t want to eat unripe berries.

The best berries are on stalks that have begun to turn reddish; there will be a few elderberry raisins on them. But the larger black berries on stalks with light green stems are also OK. Just be sure to avoid clusters that have red berries. You want the elderberries that are black or deep purple.

What to do with all these berries? Admire them, to start. Poured into a large, flat Tupperware, they looked like $10,000 worth of caviar: Shiny, tiny black orbs. So pretty! Dip your face close, and you will get the unmistakable aroma of winegrapes.

It was at this moment I realized just how good these could be in the hands of a competent winemaker — only you’ll never find one working with elderberries in California, as this place heaps so much scorn on “fruit” wines that I can barely mention them in public. Tyranny of the Grape, I call it.

I make elderberry wine every couple years. To do it right you need real berries, and a lot of them. I reckon at least 3 pounds per gallon, and 5 pounds per gallon is better.

I also make elderberry liqueur with whole berries in vodka with lemon zest. It’s damn good with just a little bit of added sugar.

Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Elderberry syrup is a great base for the classic Cumberland sauce I make to go with wild game such as duck and venison. You can also use the syrup to make an Elderberry Ice Cream.

Cumberland sauce is traditionally made with red currant jelly, but elderberry seems more natural here in California.

The British also make a curious condiment with elderberries called Pontack. It’s a little like a vinegary mashup between elderberry syrup and Worcestershire. It’s really good with venison and duck.

Photo by Hank Shaw

From around August to October elderberries are in season and ready for picking. They’re not grown commercially so if you want fresh berries be prepared to go foraging.

What to look out for

  • Small purplish-black berries, hanging in clusters.
  • Berries can be red in colour but this is less common.
  • They are a hedgerow plant and grow on small shrubs.

Check out our guide to foraging for more information on the best way to gather wild produce.

Elderberries have lots of culinary uses such as crumbles, pies, jams and liqueurs. First, remove the berries from the stalks – you can do this quickly by using the prongs of a fork. Be sure to wear an apron as the inky juices will stain clothes.


The berries have a rich flavour, so they’re delicious when mixed with other lighter autumn fruits such as apples, pears and plums. Try adding a handful of elderberries to a fruit crumble, cobbler, pie or a summer pudding.

Jams and chutneys


They can also be made into jams, chutneys and sauces, which have a wonderful fruity flavour, although the berries are low in pectin so need the addition of jam sugar or lemon juice to ensure a set. Try our hedgerow ketchup for using up a glut of glorious fruit.

Syrups and sauces


Elderberry syrup, made by cooking the berries with water and sugar, straining, then boiling the liquid until reduced and syrupy, is delicious drizzled over ice cream or plain yogurt or added to a glass of sparkling water or white wine.

Pies


Put your sprigs to good use with our elderberry and almond pie, bursting with the flavours of the season. It makes an indulgent family dessert served with a scoop of ice cream or a drizzle of fresh cream.

Liqueurs


Elderberries can be used to make a liqueur in the same way as sloe gin.

  • Steep 225g elderberries and 115g sugar in 600ml gin or vodka, with a twist of lemon peel.
  • Seal tightly and leave for about 3-4 months before drinking. It makes a nice homemade Christmas gift for the berry aficionado.

The Food Standards Agency recommends cooking elderberries to destroy toxins present in the raw berries that may cause you to feel unwell.

Have you tried cooking with elderberries? Let us know in the comments below…

Have you ever had an elderberry? It is one of the many fruits that are growing in popularity over the last few years as people are looking to get healthier. In doing so they are looking to these what the media calls superfoods. Elderberries are one of those superfoods. Check your local Whole Foods Market in their Whole Body department. You are sure to find elderberry syrup – recommended to give your immune system a boast. Whenever someone in my family gets sick or is starting to get sick, we always take a spoon full of elderberry syrup. The first time I tried this everyone else in my family was really sick and I was the last one to get it. I was only sick for a day and it wasn’t as bad as theirs (i you are interested in natural ways of treat colds and flus, check out Norm’s Farms website on the subject)

Asheville: we’ve got you covered. Get your insides ready for the outside as temps drop and we finally slip into fall… ? Come see us at Whole Foods on Tunnel Road! #elderberry #wellness #immuneboost

A post shared by Norm’s Farms (@normsfarms) on Oct 22, 2016 at 2:28pm PDT

When are Elderberries in Season?

The season depends on what part of the country you are in. Let’s start with the south, particular North Carolina. I recently have been in touch with Norm’s Farms in Pittsboro, North Carolina. I have been sampling and reviewing their amazing elderberry products (such as these jams and jellys). Their elderberry harvest is ongoing now (as I write this on July 31st) and will last a couple more weeks. The average start of the season is in mid July. The harvest is the United States as a whole lasts about 8-10 weeks, starting in the south and heading northward.

A perfectly timed shot (see the rainbow!) of flowering elderberry plants. The flowers can be used in making syrups and in teas. Photo courtesy of Norm’s Farms 🙂

Harvesting Elderberries

Elderberries are unique in a few ways. First, the flowers mature at different times. Flowers begin to appear in May. The plants still may have flowers on them in July when there are actually berries ready to be picked. It is not like say picking an apple tree, where often you get all the apples off the tree at once. You return to harvest the berries again and again.

These eldeberries are ripe for the picking. Photo courtesy of Norm’s Farms 🙂

List by State of When Elderberries are Ripe

You will find a list of below of when elderberries ripen by state. I found as many states as I could. If yours is missing please leave a comment below and I will add it to the list. Each time is an approximate. The weather plays a huge role in the exact timing of the harvest each year.

State or Region Approximate Harvest Start Time
Southern California late May-early June
Northern California late June
North Carolina mid July
Kentucky early August
Kansas late July
Ohio mid to late August
Michigan late August
Maine September
Missouri late July-early August
Montana late August-early September
New Jersey mid August
Pennsylvania mid August
New York late August-early September
Washington late August-early September

How to Find Fresh Elderberries

This can be tricky. Elderberries have practically no shelf life. They begin to ferment in less than a day. Although I have spotted them once at a farmer’s market, even that is a rare. A grocery store is completely out of the question. So either you need to grow them yourself or find a local farm that is growing them and get them fresh off the plant.

These are sprouted elderberry cuttings. Photo courtesy of Norm’s Farms 🙂

If you are interested in growing them yourself, check out Norm’s Farms website and sign up for their email list. They offer cuttings you can buy to plant your own elderberries. Norm’s also offers advice on how to root elderberry cuttings.

Elderberry

Introduction

Perennial native plants are foundations of a bioeconomy due to the lower input needs and more effective provision of ecosystem services compared to non-native annual plants (Tillman et al. 2006; Cox et al., 2006). In the Upper Midwest, where the landscape is currently dominated by corn and soybeans in the summer, and soils are largely bare in fall, winter, and spring, alternative crops that provides perenniality of the landscape is necessary. Many farmers in the Upper Midwest are interested in transitioning to more diversified perennial-based agricultural systems because of the ecosystem services these perennials can provide.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Black Elder, is a potential perennial crop that provides niche berry and flower ingredients used in Native American and pioneer cooking as well as for traditional medicinal purposes, while providing ecosystem services. Elderberry is a native fruit-bearing shrub common to Eastern and Midwestern North America. The plant is medium to large multiple-stemmed shrub. In the wild it occupies a wide range of habitats and exhibits considerable variability of form and growth habits.

Common habitats include well-drained, sunny sites, hedgerows, and is often found along streams and roadside ditches. Elderberry produces showy flat cymes of white flowers in June followed bright purple to black berries in late summer. Some bloom and fruit once, being determinate, while indeterminate elderberry continuously bloom and fruit yielding multiple crops of flowers and berries in a good year such as 2015.

Interest in cultivated elderberry production is being driven by consumer demand for health, nutrition, and wellness products. With European production currently dominating the market, US producers are attempting to jumpstart a domestic industry creating potential economic source for Minnesota farmers. In cultivated setting, elderberries generally begin producing harvestable yields 2-3 years after being planted as cuttings, and under ideal conditions, yields can approach to 8,000 pounds/acre in the southern Midwest. Commercial production of elderberry is becoming a vital part of sustainable agriculture in North America, and the number of acres dedicated to elderberry cultivation is growing. In Minnesota, this is evidenced by the establishment of the Minnesota Elderberry Cooperative in 2012. As such, cultivation of elderberry in Minnesota is recent phenomenon. However, the elderberry cultivars and planting materials currently used commercially in the state may not be the best suited to Minnesota’s growing conditions.

The development of an elderberry industry in Minnesota will depend on the resolution of several bottlenecks that must be addressed: First, there is a limited/lack of high quality planting materials that is adapted to Minnesota; second, because this is a new crop in Minnesota, one that is quite different from the dominant agronomic crops, there is limited knowledge about basic production practices both in monoculture and integrated systems; and 3) the lack of understanding of its market potential in Minnesota.

Developing the management recommendations that both enhance the environmental benefits conferred by elderberry and maximize their profitability will be essential to fulfilling our long term goal of developing a regional bio-economy based on native perennials that sustain both people and the ecosystem. Elderberry uniquely provides a multifunctional set of biological characteristics from a widely spreading, relatively shallow root system providing erosion control and wildlife habitat for birds, a wide range of prairie and oak savannah animals, dozens of native pollinators. Developing good management techniques present the potential to provide this environmental service as well as produce berries and flowers for human use as noted previously. In the field some elderberry cultivars convert large amounts of nitrogen to stem, leaf and fruit through its ability to grow rapidly and bear fruit in commercially viable quantities with annual cutting to the ground. The plant’s ability to regenerate itself annually could be effective in reducing nitrogen run-off, with the properly researched and tested horticultural management as applied to specific cultivars, both currently known and those yet to be identified.

Breeding and Genomics

There is limited selection of elderberry (Sambucus) cultivars that farmers can use in the production systems. Developing new cultivars for the Upper Midwest from existing, yet undocumented Minnesota elderberry germplasm is necessary. A genomic and breeding study will be employed around Minnesota to evaluate wild-sourced elderberry against the cultivars that are currently being used by Minnesota farmers to address bottlenecks of elderberry adoption and to accelerate its promotion in the landscape. Simple production efficiency of berries and flowers within general quality characteristics from even ripening, berry hold, weight, sweetness and acidity for traditional use in foods, brews and spirits will be evaluated through the breeding program. Others might more efficiently provide land management services and still yield a crop suitable for food ingredient design such as colorants and antioxidant rich freeze dried powders.

Agronomy/Agroforestry

As indicated, long-lived woody perennials such as elderberry are likely to be foundation crops for diverse evergreen agricultural systems, with multiple ecological benefits. Because elderberry is a new crop in Minnesota, there is a dearth of basic research-based agronomic information on them, so as when they are planted in integrated systems such as agroforestry.

The elder’s widely spreading, moderately deep root systems hold soil in place and reduce leaching, thereby preventing soil erosion and protecting water quality. Elderberries are suited to both small and large scale production. It can fit into many small niches in the agricultural landscape. They can add economic value when planted in integrated systems such windbreaks, living snow fences, riparian buffers, alley cropping, contour strips, CRP and other marginal lands. Elderberries make it profitable for farmers to retire from annual agriculture those portions of agricultural landscapes that are least suited to it and which contribute the most to environmental degradation, such as steep slopes and areas prone to flooding. Their cold hardiness and later blooming cycle prevent them from the risks associated with an early frost: young shoot, emergent growth damage and flower loss, so that exposure to early spring sun is a benefit to their cultivation and not a risk, as it is for so many commercially grown fruits.

Recommendations from Oregon, New York and Missouri are not completely transferable because of the differences in environmental growing conditions in Minnesota; thus agronomic research to understand production using various agronomic practices is necessary. Although elderberries grow in a wide range of soil conditions, growth performance needs to be evaluated vis-à-vis site selection and preparation, establishment practices (planting design and weed management), and fertility management (nutrients needs). Coppicing and pruning systems for rejuvenation of mature plants is necessary to optimize elderberry production but is a major concern among elderberry growers because of the impacts these practices have on fruit production and quality. While elderberries are relatively pest resistant, several potential problems exists that impact commercial production. Pest management strategies should be identified to minimize impacts.

Commercialization

Elderberries have strong market potential. Elderberry plants are used for both their berries and flowers in juices, jams and extracts for their health properties; as flavor sources for foods and spirits; and as natural colors for foods and cosmetics. These markets are likely to grow as appreciation of the health value of the berries, for instance, increases.

More nutrient-dense than most other berries, elderberry juice, flowers, and extracts possess antiviral, immune modulation and anti-inflammatory properties. Elderberry-seasoned foods also exist in the market. Because of these market potential, there is a need to develop the market for Minnesota produced elderberry products.

An understanding of the effects of growing conditions, harvest, storage and processing on berries and flowers is also necessary. Changes in nutritional or functional properties and ways to mitigate issues need to be evaluated and understood so that farmers can maximize their profits and their market potential.

Other needs and challenges: Considering environmental challenges pose by agricultural intensification in Minnesota, there is a need to evaluate and explore the use of elderberry primarily for environmental protection and conservation using different planting designs. Elderberry can justifiably serve from a horticultural purpose as a windbreak or riparian buffer planting, without regard to direct economic production from berries and flowers, yet can produce salable product to reduce the cost of land management can open the door to technological and biological innovation in its harvest and use as an ingredient colorant or medical supplement.

For example, elderberry planted as part of a riparian buffer should be managed, harvested and processed differently from a primary crop agricultural installation aimed at producing berries for wine or juice. This will provide the opportunity to explore and increase use of mechanization and bulk techniques for ingredient production at lower costs per unit. In other words, a lower price per unit of flowers or berries is justified because the primary purpose for the plant is environmental, management principle/statute satisfying.

People

Dean Current, Research Associate, Head of CINRAM, Department of Forest Resources

Kevin Dorn, Post Doctoral Research Associate, Kansas State University

Emily Hoover, Professor, Department of Horticultural Science

Tonya Schoenfuss, Associate Professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition

Craig Sheaffer, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

Don Wyse, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

Diomy Zamora, Extension Professor, University of Minnesota Extension

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Learn how to identify and forage for elderberry, plus ideas on how to work with and use this exceptional medicinal berry!

(This post is a contribution by Melissa Keyser)

As you probably can tell by now, but I am a dreamer. I spend lots of time thinking of future things. One of which is my future, forever garden. Row crops will be out in the fields, but my herbs, dye and cutting garden will be behind a fence, lined with fragrant roses that I will pick for tea, for the hips and to grace my tables. And at the garden gate, there will stand two large elder bushes, protecting and looking over the garden space.

In Old European traditions, Elder, or Sambucus, was planted at the edge of the herb garden. Even the name reminds us of the wisdom and status this plant holds. Elderberry is one of the most valuable remedies for colds and flus, and until I have my own plants guarding the garden, I forage for the ripe berries in wild spaces.

Earlier in the year, I harvested the elderflowers. Now that the pollinators have visited, those lacy white blooms that faced towards the sun have started to bow down to the earth, transforming into the heavy gems, ripe berries full of healing juice. I make sure to gather some of these elderberries at their prime to use for my cold and flu potions.

About Blue Elderberry

The elderberries that I have in my area are blue elderberries, Sambucus cerulea or Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea. This is the elderberry native to California. The taxonomy of elderberries gets confusing, as there are many different varieties depending on where you live. There are also varieties that go under the name S. mexicana, S. nigra or S. canadensis.

Elderberry Safety

The leaves, stems and unripe berries of elderberry are toxic, so make sure to pick and use only ripe berries. Avoid Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, which are toxic, regardless of ripeness. Raw elderberries are a bit bitter and can cause stomach upset, so they are best cooked.

When to Find Elderberries

Elderberries are a summer fruit, but the exact timing depends on your climate. They will be fully ripe about 2-3 months after the flowers bloom. Warmer areas and milder climates might see blooms in June, colder areas September.

Where to Find Elderberries

There are varieties of elder that are native to almost all of North America and Europe. They grow in many different environments, from sides of the freeway to suburban backyards to remote woodland edges, and can be found in full sun to part shade. I most commonly find elder growing near, but not in, rivers and creeks.

How to Identify Elderberry

Elderberry is deciduous, and can be a small tree with a single trunk but is more often a multitrunked shrub. Elders commonly grow by suckers, so they are often found in clumps, especially if growing in the shade. The stems are hollow, and when cut, filled with a pith inside.

The variety in my area has green leaves, which are compound, comprising of 5- 9 leaflets that are gently serrated. Some varieties, such the ornamental S. nigra cultivars, have black and lacy leaves.

For more photos of the bushes and the edible flowers, make sure to read about foraging elderflower earlier in the season.

The berry clusters are made up of individual berries, which are small, about the size of a pencil width, and hang in clusters from the ends of the branches. The berries of blue elderberry often look white, because of the natural yeast, called “bloom”, that covers them. Some of the clusters will have both white, black and blue berries.

Privet, a weed tree, has similar colored and shaped berry clusters. However, the leaves of privet are much different than elder, so seek out the branches. Remember the clusters of elderberry appear “flat”, while private is more conical or bunched.

Birds and wildlife love elderberries, so if you see a bush with ripe berries covered with birds, you probably have the right bush!

After you have positively identified your berry, simply use pruners to cut the berry clusters off where the cluster stems reach the main stem. Remember that the leaves and stems of elder are toxic, so there is no need to take more of the branch than you need.

Choose clusters with berries that are plump and shiny, avoiding those that have started to dry our or are still green.

Bugs also like to hang out in the clusters, so I have each branch a shake before snipping off the berry cluster. This also helps knock off any dried berries.

How to Process Elderberry

After I harvest my berry clusters, I like to rinse them off to remove dust. Depending on where you are harvesting from, that may not be necessary. I fill a bowl with water and while holding the stem, quickly dunk and swirl around each cluster.

After your berries are clean, you need to garble them. I recently learned this word and it might be a new favorite. This is the process of removing the stems, leaves and other debris. This can be a slow and tedious process, but it’s important to remove as much of the stems as possible. I sit at a table and working over a bowl, comb my fingers through the clusters, pulling the fruit away from the stem.

After your garbling is complete, you are ready to store or use your berries.

Drying:

Dried elderberry is great in tea, or they can be used later to make tinctures or infuse in honey. I take advantage of my 100+°F days and dry my berries in the sun. I lay them out on cookie sheets, then cover with pop-up tents used for BBQ and picnic dishes to keep out the flies, and they dry within a day. You could also use a dehydrator or the oven on a very low temp.

Freezing:

Frozen elderberries can be used later in baked goods or turned into medicine the same way they would be used fresh. I lay my berries out on a cookie sheet in a single layer, freeze, then transfer the loose berries to a jar or freezer bag.

If you don’t want to freeze the berries whole, you can also freeze just the juice. Cook the berries over a low heat, mashing with a spoon or a potato masher to release the juice. Then pressing through fine-mesh cheesecloth, colander or a jelly bag, and freeze the juice. 8 cups of berries yield about 2 cups of juice.

I still have juice frozen from last year’s harvest, so this year, I froze them whole. I plan on infusing some in honey and the combining with some tinctures when they are done brewing, to make a cough syrup.

Ways to Use Elderberry

Medicinally, elderberry has immune-enhancing and antiviral properties. It is a powerful natural remedy in treating viral infections like colds, cases of flu, upper respiratory infections and herpes outbreaks.

As a fruit, raw elderberries are tart, seedy, not very appetizing, and should be cooked to enjoy. They can be used in pies, cobblers, jam or other baked goods.

In the past, I’ve combined elderberry juice cooked with ginger and cinnamon then mixed with honey for an all-purpose winter ill remedy, similar to this one. This year, I’m trying a few different recipes, that I’ll be sure to share when I have finished!

Recipes for how to use your elderberry harvest:

  • Classic Elderberry Syrup, using dried elderberries
  • Small Batch Elderberry Mead
  • Elderberry Tincture, using dried elderberries
  • Elderberry Gummy Bears
  • Elderberry Jelly

As the late summer sniffles simmer down and crisp fall winds begin blowing through the air, it is time to think about preparing for the impending cold and flu season – which, for me, includes harvesting and preparing my favorite winter remedies.

And that means… it is time to harvest elderberries!

Here’s what’s to come in this article:

This enchanting deciduous shrub is decorated with clusters of small white flowers in the spring, which eventually develop into bundles of tiny black or purple berries. In the wild, you will tend to find them in wet and swampy areas, often in disturbed places.

Boasting a multitude of marvelous uses, this plant is an incredibly supportive medicinal winter remedy touted by many herbalists and practitioners of traditional medicine, not to mention it makes for delectable jams, pies, and even wine!

Folklore and Magical History

In ancient Celtic traditions of Northern Europe, elders were revered trees, cherished as gifts from the “Elder Mother” goddess who was believed to reside inside the plant.

They were thought to be a window into the soul of trees, protecting forests and the people that cared for them, and they were often planted around houses and farms to protect the land and the gardens. Cutting one down or burning its sacred wood was considered highly taboo.

In Danish and German folklore, prior to cutting, it was necessary to ask the Elder Mother for permission, or else risk coming into misfortune. In Ireland, cutting down the elder tree was forbidden.

Upon the introduction of Christianity, however, the reputation of the elder changed. The Elder Mother became feared as a witch, and this resulted in a new association with evil.

In Scotland, elder wood was placed above entryways to protect homes from wicked spirits. In England and Germany, bringing the wood of an elder into the home was thought to attract ghosts and witches. And in Ireland, the elder became feared as a cursed tree; putting elder wood in a fire was said to attract the devil.

Though its cultural significance has fluctuated across time and space, one thing seems to be agreed upon: elder is a plant of magic and power!

Perhaps this is why, in J. K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the Elder Wand is considered the most revered and powerful of all magical objects. In this fictional world, elder wood was not commonly used in wandmaking, and it was said that only a “highly unusual” witch or wizard would be matched with it.

Medicinal Use

Elder has a long history of therapeutic use in many places throughout the world. Both the flowers and berries are used medicinally for a variety of ailments.

Loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C, elderberries are antimicrobial, providing overall support and protection to the immune system.

As noted by Maria Noel Groves in her book, Body into Balance: an Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care, the fruits contain chemical compounds that block receptor sites which are used by viruses to invade cells.

Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care

Elderberry medicine is therefore often taken regularly or acutely during the winter months as a preventative for colds, flu, fevers, chills, congestion, and general malaise.

The fruits are comparable to Tamiflu and have some ability to inhibit H1N1 influenza.

As cited by David Hoffman in his book Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine, a number of clinical studies have confirmed the benefits of elderberry against cold and flu.

Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine

This long-respected plant has made a resurgence in popular culture in recent years. These days, syrups and tablets can be found on vitamin shelves in many co-ops and pharmacies.

It is much more rewarding to make your own medicine, though, and I find the process to be both calming and enjoyable.

When to Harvest

Elderberry shrubs bloom over the summer from June to August, depending on the climate. Here in central Vermont, they tend to flower in August. The berries soon follow, ripening in late August or early September.

Make sure to harvest the fruits when they are fully ripe. This is important because the berries are mildly toxic before they have fully ripened. The fruit of both S. nigra and S. canadensis should be a dark purple or black in color, soft, and juicy. Unripe ones will look green or pale purple.

Note that even the ripe berries should not be eaten raw. According to Maria Noel Groves, the process of cooking or drying ripe berries will break down any remaining toxic chemical compounds that could irritate the digestive tract.

If you are interested in learning more about natural herbal remedies using elderberry and other homegrown or foraged ingredients, Groves’ book is available on Amazon.

Sometimes the berries can look purple on the outside but still be under-ripe inside. To tell if they are fully ripe, try squeezing a berry and examining its juice. If it is ready, it will be a deep purple. The juice of unripe berries looks pale and watery.

It is a good idea to do this squeeze test on one or two berries on each cluster that you snip.

If you also want to harvest the flowers, collect them when they are in full bloom, but don’t harvest all of them or you won’t get any fruits!

If you aren’t growing any elder shrubs of your own, you can look for wild plants in bogs, along stream beds, or on the edges of disturbed areas.

A word of caution: Red elderberry (S. racemosa) is toxic and should not be consumed. It happens to look very similar to other varieties, the key difference being that it flowers earlier in the spring, around the time that lilacs bloom. It also bears its bright red or purple fruit earlier in the summertime.

How to Harvest

To harvest the berries, cut entire clusters with pruning shears, just below the base of the fruits.

Collect the clusters in a basket, bucket, or plastic bag.

Once the berries are harvested, they must be removed from the stems. The stems and leaves are toxic and should not be consumed.

Bonus Tip: Instead of attempting to remove each berry from the stems individually, a painful and tedious task, place entire clusters in the freezer for a few hours. Once frozen, you can easily shake the fruit off the branches into bowls or bags.

Preservation

Elderberries need to be cooked, dried, or processed in some way before they can be consumed safely. Like many other parts of the plant, the berries are mildly toxic when eaten raw.

While eating a few raw ones won’t kill you, it will likely leave you with an unpleasant stomach ache and some unfortunate nausea. Better not to risk it!

Luckily, there is no lack of enticing ways to preserve and use elderberries. They can be made into medicinal syrups, alcohol- or glycerin-based tinctures, gummies, or cough drops. Fruits can be decocted for tea or infused in honey.

For something delicious to eat, they can even be preserved as jams and jellies, or baked into pies.

And don’t forget about sweet elderberry wine!

Drying

Clean the fruits by placing them in a pot of water, letting debris float to the top. Scoop out anything you can with a strainer, and then filter the berries from the water using a colander.

Let the fruit drip dry in the colander or on a paper towel for a couple of hours to remove any excess moisture, and then spread them out in a single layer on a drying tray.

Once they’re clean, there are a few ways to dry elderberries:

  • Dry them in full sun, covering them with a screen to prevent birds and insects from stealing the berries. This method should take a few days.
  • Place trays in the oven on the warm setting for about half an hour, checking occasionally until berries are fully dried
  • Dry them in just a few hours, using an electric dehydrator.

For more dehydrator preservation tips, check out the guide to dehydrating the garden’s bounty .

No matter what method you choose, check to make sure that the berries are shriveled and crinkly to ensure that they have dried fully and are ready for further processing or storage.

Try pressing one with your finger. If any moisture is present, keep drying!

Store in a sealed glass jar in a cool dark location, such as a pantry or cellar.

Freezing

Clean fresh fruits in a water bath similar to that described above for drying.

Freeze in tightly sealed jars or zip-top bags until you are ready to process and use them.

If you have already pre-frozen clusters prepared for easy stem removal, wash and then refreeze the individual berries as soon as possible. Otherwise, you risk creating a giant, messy mass of berries.

Making Medicine

My favorite way to use elderberries is to make my own medicinal syrup, a process I find to be easy and fun!

To Make Syrup

First, combine 1 part clean fruit with 4 parts water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn down the heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes. The resulting liquid should be dark purple in color

Next, remove the decoction from the heat and let it steep for about an hour.

Strain the juice using cheesecloth, a colander with small holes, or a nut milk bag. Squeeze the bag to recover as much of the liquid as possible. Set it aside to cool.

Measure the final liquid volume, and add 50% of that volume in honey to create a syrup.

Once the mixture is fully cool, you can also choose to add alcohol, which can greatly increase the syrups shelf life. Add 20% of the final liquid volume for the best keeping quality. Vodka works well, or any other neutral alcohol you prefer.

And that’s all there is to it! Bottle it up and stick it in the fridge or the freezer until those icy winter winds arrive.

Tip: Elderberry can be combined with many other herbs and spices for added medicinal benefits or flavor. Try a tasty addition of cinnamon, lemon, and ginger!

The syrup can last a few months in the fridge, longer if made with alcohol. Otherwise, it is a great idea to freeze it in ice cube trays and defrost one at a time as needed.

To Make a Tincture

Tincturing is another of my favorite ways to preserve and utilize this fruit.

Just fill a jar with tightly packed berries and pour in a neutral alcohol to cover. Vodka that is 100 proof or higher is best.

Seal the jar and store in a dark place, shaking every day for at least a few weeks. Strain out the berries and bottle it up.

If you prefer not to use alcohol, you can make a glycerite tincture instead, by replacing the alcohol in the tincture with vegetable glycerin.

As always, this article is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care professional before starting herbal remedies or supplements.

Cooking and Recipe Ideas

This Thanksgiving, why not try making an elderberry pie? Baking these sweet and sour fruits in a warm and flaky pie crust really brings out the exquisite and unique flavor. All of your guests will be impressed!

Want to try your hand at brewing up some elderberry wine? Before diving in, check out this article on Foodal about making wine at home.

Ward Off Those Winter Blues

Don’t get bogged down by the winter blues this year! Protect and nourish yourself with elderberry instead.

Whether you want to support your immune system with plant medicine, enjoy fresh-brewed homemade wine, or ward off spirits, this magical plant is for you!

Do you have experience preserving and using elderberry? Share your tips and questions in the comments below.

If you found this guide valuable, you’ll also find some useful elderberry info here:

  • 7 Top Elderberry Varieties to Grow in Your Backyard
  • How to Use Elderflowers for Food and Medicine
  • How to Grow Elderberries

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Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Uncredited photos: .

The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.

About Heather Buckner

Heather Buckner hails from amongst the glistening lakes of Minnesota, and now lives with her family on a beautiful homestead in the Vermont Mountains. She holds a bachelor of science degree in environmental science from Tufts University, and has traveled and worked in many roles in conservation and environmental advocacy, including creating and managing programs based around resource conservation, organic gardening, food security, and building leadership skills. Heather is a certified permaculture designer and student herbalist. She is also a fanatical gardener, and enjoys spending as much time covered in dirt as possible!

Elderberry guide: where to find, health benefits and recipe ideas

As summer drifts into autumn, elderberries become a common sight alongside Britain’s country lanes, garden verges and woodlands. These small, purple-black berries are found growing in bunches on elder trees (Sambucus nigra) and are a valuable resource for humans and wildlife alike.

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Our expert elderberry guide explores this important fruit, delving into its folklore, health benefits, where to find it and recipe ideas.

Elder tree facts

  • Elder trees can grow up to 15m tall.
  • The trees can live for 60 years.
  • Elders are hermaphrodite, which means they have both male and female reproductive parts within the same flower.
  • The trees are often mistaken for walnuts tree – yet, unlike the walnut, elders have oppositely arranged leaves.

Elderflowers, berries and tree (from left to right) ©Getty

When are elderberries in season?

Elderberries ripen between August and October, replacing the elderflower clusters seen in earlier in the year in late spring.

Where can I find elderberries?

Elderberry tree in hedgerow ©Getty

Elder trees grow in woodlands, hedgerows, scrub and wasteland. They may also be found along road verges and often crop up in gardens. Their seeds are distributed via animal droppings, so keep an eye out for the tree’s fresh green leaves around rabbit warrens and badger sets – or vice versa.

Can I eat elderberries?

Yes, but they should be cooked first to safely remove the lectin and cyanide (toxins). Raw berries, which are tart, are mildly poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Elder branches, bark and leaves should not be consumed at all.

Elderberries should be cooked before being eaten ©Getty

What are the health benefits of elderberries?

Christian custom depicts the elder as evil, a symbol of sorrow and death and bearer of bad spirits, while pagans believed it to remove harmful spells and induce vivid dreams. Leaves of the tree were once hung in doorways and windows to guard against evil, and the berries – thought to possess antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties – have long been associated with healing.

These days, the berry’s medicinal properties are widely recognised, and it is often harvested in August by opportunistic country folk to help strengthen the immune system and fight cold and flu.

How are elderberries important for wildlife?

Elder trees are an important autumn food source for birds ©Getty

The elder tree as a whole is an important resource for many different species of mammal, insect and bird in the British countryside.

  • Flowers – provide nectar for numerous insect species. They are also eaten by small mammals.
  • Berries – a valuable food for birds and mammals, such as dormice and bank voles.
  • Elder leaves – elder foliage is a nutrient source for moth caterpillars, such as the dot moth, white spotted pug and swallowtail.

Elderberry recipes

Elderberry cordial

Why not create your own flu-busting elderberry cordial? It’s simple and will last the winter. Simply, grab a tub-full of berries on your next trip out, being sure to only pick ripe fruit. Put the elders in a pan and add water to just cover the fruit. Boil for 15 minutes and then strain the contents through muslin. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and 500g of sugar to each litre of liquid, then boil again before allowing to cool. Dilute to taste for a delicious remedy to a winter ailment.

Make a flu-busting elderberry cordial to help shift winter colds and flu. (Getty)

Elderberry wine

This is a full wine-making recipe and, done well, can produce a red wine good enough to compete with many supermarket wines. Occasionally you will produce something truly exquisite. Just like grapes, elderberries can differ year on year. Some years every tree seems to be weighed down with massive clusters of plump, juicy fruits that all go ripe at the same time. Other years are leaner but elder trees are so abundant you should find enough berries for this recipe.

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Hedgerow ketchup

Make this easy hedgerow ketchup as a tasty accompaniment to your summer BBQ.

When Are Elderberries Ripe?

August 01, 2015 0 Comments

When are Elderberries ripe and ready to harvest?

If making your own Elderberry Pie or Wine is on your bucket list, knowing when elderberries are ripe and ready to harvest is an important detail! The trick to a successful harvest is being able to identify fully ripe berries, and harvesting only those. Typically, elderberries are ripening throughout the US from late July through September.

Identifying Elderberry Bushes

The first thing you have to be able to do is to identify an elderberry bush. If you have elderberries planted in your home garden then you already know what they look like. For those of you who want to harvest wild elderberries, here are a couple of important identification tricks:
1. Elderberry is a shrub that will grow to 10 feet or more. Elderberries that are growing at the edge of woodlands can get even taller as they reach for the light, as is true for this Magnolia specimen growing in my back yard. Elderberry bushes that are growing in full sun will have a more compact, dense shrub appearance.
2. Elderberry has a smooth, light colored bark speckled with darker spots that are slightly pronounced “bumps”. These bumps are actually lenticels, which are pores the plant uses to exchange gasses between the atmosphere and its internal tissues.
3. Elderberry has opposite compound leaves, often with 4 or more pairs of leaves per stem.

Identifying Ripe Elderberries

Elderberries have developed a neat survival strategy that ensures successful propagation. This strategy is to spread the flowering and ripening of fruit over a long period of time, with the first flowers appearing in May, and the last of the fruit ready to harvest in September. It is not unusual in July to find an elderberry flower, bunches of elderberries in the process of ripening and a ripe bunch of elderberries ready for picking all on the same bush! This uneven flowering and fruit production strategy ensures that a passing insect invasion will not destroy all the flowers, and happily it also ensures that a passing flock of birds will not eat all the berries before you can have some, too.
Therefore, to be a successful elderberry harvester, you need to adopt the same strategy. Late July and early August is the time to begin visiting your elderberry bush on a regular, if not daily, basis. Elderberries go from green to dark purple over a period of weeks. The following picture is of an un-ripe cluster of berries that should not be harvested.
Look for clusters of berries that are deep purple-black in color with a plump appearance. Ripe clusters of berries are heavier than unripe clusters and tend to hang upside down.
Elderberry Bush with Ripening Fruit
The Smooth Bark of the Elderberry Bush
Elderberry Leaves
Elderflowers and Elderberries in various stages of ripening on the same bush
Un-ripe Cluster of Elderberries
Ripe Cluster of Elderberries
Elderberries are exceptionally perishable fruit, which is why you never find them at farmer’s markets or at your local grocery. Once harvested you have less than 12 hours to either cook them or freeze them, as they will begin to ferment quickly, so plan your harvesting day accordingly. Bring a pair of clippers or kitchen sheers and a clean bowl or bag with you when you head out to harvest elderberries. Simply clip the “hand” of berries and place in your bowl or bag, and repeat until you have enough for your recipe.

Cleaning Elderberries

Fill your sink with cold water and immerse each hand of berries in the cold water. Give them a twirl or two to rid them of unwanted passengers like insects and dirt. Rinse them again under running water and then set them on a towel to drip dry for about 15 minutes or so.

Removing Elderberries from their Stem

There are a couple methods for removing the tiny berries from the stems. You’ll notice that the tiny stems that attach the berries to the larger stems are fibrous and a bit stubborn; de-stemming elderberries is definitely the most time consuming part of the job.
By Hand: Gently tug the berries free from their micro-stems and place in a clean bowl.
“Forking Elderberries”: Use the tines of a fork to strip the berries free from their micro-stems. Do this over a large bowl as the berries tend to fly free and if you aren’t careful you’ll have berries all over your floor!
The Freezer Method: This method works great if you can tolerate a few micro-stems in your recipe. After your berries have been cleaned and drip dried, place them in a freezer bag and put them straight into the freezer for at least 24 hours. (Longer is fine!) Take the frozen bag of berries out of the freezer and gently slap the bag against the counter to knock the berries off the micro-stems. When most of the berries are free, open the bag and remove the stems. You’ll probably finding yourself pulling a few more lone stems out of the berries; work quickly as the berries thaw pretty fast. Using the Freezer Method works well for Elderberry Syrup and Elderberry Extract because both require cooking the elderberries in water. Most of the remaining micro-stems will float to the top of the water and can be easily removed by hand. We used the freezer method the other day and made this short video that takes you from harvest to de-stemming the berries. Which ever method you use, we wish you the best of times with your elderberry harvest this year!

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