Foraging for Elderberries – What are Elderberries and How to Find Them

Foraging for Elderberries

Elderberries are all over the place here. Since they make fabulous jam and syrup, we went and picked a bunch last Saturday.

We just moved to the area, so we were afraid it would be a bit of a wild goose chase to find ‘good spots’ to pick elderberries. No problem there – we found so many elderberry bushes, we filled all our buckets in two hours, and we barely skimmed the surface with the amount of elderberries we found.

All the bushes we picked from were most likely the species Sambucus caeruleaknown as “blue elderberry”. (It is often considered a subspecies of S. nigra sub. caerulea. It depends on who you talk to.) It grows 30 feet high and has dark purple berries that look grayish-blue because of a light waxy coating that covers them. The flowers are white or cream in color, on umbels that are nearly flat across the top when you turn them sideways. They are not as pleasantly odorous as other elderberry flowers.

This species is native on the west coast of North America, from British Columbia to California. (Other areas of North America & Europe have a different varieties of native elderberries – see below for species description.) 

We’ve seen for ourselves just how abundant it is in this area. They are everywhere! We were in a small wild area, in between farmland, about a quarter mile from the river. Every 5-20 feet we would come upon another elderberry bush. It was impossible to pick all the elderberries. Plus, the bushes grew so tall, we could only harvest the lowest 7 or 8 feet. The birds will still have plenty to eat if they get hungry for elderberries.

If elderberries grow in your area, look for them along less-traveled roads and in riparian areas. Elderberries do like damp soil, generally, and plenty of sunlight. That should give you some clues where to start looking for them.

(It would be best not to pick them along well-traveled roads. The pollutants near major roadways, from exhaust, weed sprays, etc. have likely contaminated plants in those areas.)

Elderberries do contain poisonous cyanic compounds contained in the stems, leaves, roots, and seeds. The berries are edible when they’re ripe and cooked. A handful of uncooked elderberries will generally have no ill effects, but if you eat too many, especially on an empty stomach, you’ll likely get sick.

The flowers are also edible, and have also traditionally been used to lightly flavor fritters, pancakes, scones, and cakes.

Identifying Elderberries with Certainty

If you intend to harvest the flowers, you MUST be certain to identify it properly. An inexperienced forager may mistake the flowers of the highly poisonous water hemlock for the flowers of the elderberry.

The umbelliferae (formerly apiaceae) family, commonly known as the carrot family, includes many plants that produce white, umbel (umbrella-shaped) flowers. Some are edible (carrots, parsley, etc.) and some are highly poisonous, including the water hemlock. When in doubt, DON’T eat it.

Water hemlock doesn’t produce berries. It is a herbaceous (non-woody) plant. (If it has bark, at least you’ll know it’s not a hemlock.) The leaf axils and stem nodes are often purplish. Its flowers are more open, with several little umbrella-shaped flower clusters in a spray.

Elderberry is a woody plant, with bark on its trunk and branches. It produces white or cream, flat-topped flower clusters.

Other elderberry species include:

  • S. canadensis: Known as “sweet elderberry.” Flat-topped, white flower bunches. Deeply purple berries (almost black). Native on the east coast of North America, from Nova Scotia all the way south to Florida, and west to Manitoba (in Canada) and Texas (United States). 
  • S. ebulus: The smallest species of elderberry, growing only 3-5 feet high, and known as the “dwarf elderberry”. Native to Europe and the western parts of Asia. The flowers are white with purple anthers. Less used for food than the S. nigra.
  • S. nigra: Also native to Europe. Known as “black elderberry” or “European elderberry”. One of the most-used elderberries. Used medicinally as well as for food (berries & flowers).

Picking & Preparing the Elderberries

The easiest way to pick elderberries is to use a pair of scissors or clippers and cut the entire umbel off and place it in a bucket. Then when you’ve returned home, you can gently tease the berries from the stems in comfort.

 John picking elderberries.

To wash the berries and remove further chaff that may be mixed in with them, gently fill the bowl with water until there is about an inch of water above the berries. Then you can run your hand carefully through the berries without damaging them, since the water is holding a lot of their weight. More chaff (stems, bits of leaf, dried flower bits, etc.) will rise to the surface. This can be easily skimmed off with a sieve. (See the video below.)

Since the stems and leaves of elderberry can poison you, you’ll want to be very thorough and clean the berries well.

If you don’t have time to turn the elderberries into jam until a few days later, as in our case, when you get them washed and cleaned, you can freeze them until you’re ready to turn them into jam.

Gently scoop handfuls of berries out of the water, and place them in freezer containers or freezer bags, and freeze.

Each 5 gallon bucket we picked yielded 2 full gallons of cleaned elderberries, so we got about 12 gallons total. That is going to make a LOT of jam, syrup, and fruit leather.

Making Elderberry Jam & Syrup

Elderberry jam is delicious. It doesn’t have as strong a flavor as blackberry or huckleberry jam… it’s more on par with blueberry jam. (This, of course, is my own estimation.) Its flavor is very pleasant, like a dullish blueberry with a bit more acidity.

We have a fabulous recipe for Elderberry Jelly & Syrup. (One of our favorite uses of this syrup is to make Lemon & Elderberry Cheesecake!)

Growing Elderberries

Elderberries are loved by bees, butterflies and birds. If you don’t have elderberries in your area, you could grow your own. Learn more about growing your own elderberries.

More Pics from the Pick

Unripe and ripe elderberries.

elderberries ripe and unripe

Close-up of elderberry flowers.

Elderberry ‘raisins’. A few were starting to dry on the bush. I guess the birds couldn’t eat them fast enough either. :)

While we were out and about, we also found wild grapes and dewberries. I can’t wait until they’re ripe. I’m on the lookout for chokecherries too.


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19 Responses to Foraging for Elderberries – What are Elderberries and How to Find Them

  1. greg huffer July 12, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    do they grow in Indiana, wood love to have some for wine

    • Anni August 12, 2015 at 6:55 pm #

      I believe so. I think the only area they don’t grow in the United States are in the southwestern region. Look for them in the riparian areas – the wild edges of fields and the edges of forested areas.

    • Andrea August 22, 2016 at 9:15 am #

      Yes, they do! I’m in northern Indiana and may picked an armful about an hour ago!

      • Ash October 18, 2016 at 8:13 am #

        I’m trying to make soap, organically, so an abundance is needed..
        I live in IL, about 20 mins from Schererville/Merrilliville/Hammond area.
        Where have you found them? Would one find them simply walking in a forest preserve path?

  2. Irene Perler August 30, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    I’m so happy about this post with great pictures and information. I have several elderberry bushes, but was worried once I heard about some of the elderberry species being poisonous. I was tempted to eat some of the berries and am glad I haven’t eaten many raw. I dried some by accident because they were so pretty and in a bouquet. Now I know I can still use them, too. I have really benefited in the fall and winter from the store bought Sambuca remedies…so, I’m very happy to go harvest today and make my own syrup. I’m also a beginning bee keeper and will have my own honey to add to it and make some really good immune boosters for my family and friends.
    Thank you!

    • Anni August 31, 2015 at 9:59 pm #

      That’s fabulous. We don’t have bees at the moment. Hopefully in the spring we can get our own hive. We’re so glad the post helped. :)

  3. Danica November 15, 2015 at 8:32 am #

    Thank you! I am a nurse who hates the medical system. I’m trying to learn all I can about organic and natural ways to boost my families ability to fight off infections. I’ve always hears of elderberry as a great one. Now I can try to find some and grow some here. My bees will love it too!

  4. Gina June 28, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    Where did you forage for these elderberries? Were you in the Sacramento Valley, CA?

    • Anni August 30, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

      Northern California.

  5. monica August 13, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    Hi, I saw someone said that elderberries don’t grow in the Southwest. I live in southern Oklahoma . they are definitely here !
    I found a person who had found one along the side of railroad tracks years ago . he brought some home and they spread amazingly. I just picked what he had yesterday.

  6. Linda August 16, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    We put the clusters of elderberries in a big feed sack and freeze them. Then jostling the sack around knocks off quite a few of the frozen little “marbles” – any that don’t come off on their own can be pulled off with a fork (wear gloves to keep your hands warm) more easily than when they are fresh and juicy. Raintree Nursery has a good selection of Danish and other European types of elderberries.

  7. Leah August 22, 2016 at 4:44 pm #

    Anni…thank you for the helpful tips and beautifully detailed photos! I’m a northern cal native and grew up eating everything I could and learned quickly as a kid(thanks to my parents!) to revel in natures bounty! My heart now is instilled deeply in being a mom and a strong community member…your site was my tool I shared with a large group of familys that I brought out for an elderberry forage fest. Thank you for keeping this spirit of life alive!

    • Anni August 30, 2016 at 9:08 pm #

      Thank you for your sweet comment, Leah! I’m glad it proved useful!

  8. Josephine September 15, 2016 at 9:59 am #

    Is there someplace I can send a picture to see if what i have on my property are elderberries?

    • Anni September 18, 2016 at 8:21 pm #

      You can upload it to our FB page and I’ll take a look at it. :)

  9. Bonny September 23, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    Is it possible to have birds plant an elderberry in my flower bed here in Iowa? It would be a first year elderberry. There Is a 3 foot plant that has several clusters of tiny white flowers in groups on the branches. These are turning into green berries that are becoming purple. The berries are good sized and even the main part of th trunk and stems are purple. It is just that it looks much more symmetrical and not hanging yet if it does…. THANKS for helping me. It just is so odd to see this randomly growing in front of my porch here in the city.

    • Anni October 4, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

      It’s very possible. In fact, it happened to us just this past year. It has leaves somewhat similar to a rose when it’s young, so that’s what I thought it was at first. But it was definitely an elderberry.
      If you want to be sure, upload a picture to our Facebook page ( and I’ll take a look at it.

  10. Brett October 13, 2016 at 8:16 am #

    Hello one and all……

    Have i left it too late to find and pick elderberries?????

    Better still…… where in east Dorset can i find them????


    • Anni October 15, 2016 at 10:38 pm #

      I expect it’s too late now. Where we are (northern California) we pick them in June and July. Next spring/summer, though! Good luck!

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