Foraging Elderberries: Identifying, Harvesting & Preserving

Elderberries are great for pie, jam, liquor, and much more. 

Foraging for Elderberries is a great way for homesteaders to extend their berry supply for the year as well as for the rest of us to get our hands on some of the sweet and seemingly rare berries. 

But, first, you need to know how to identify, harvest, and preserve or prepare them. Read on below!

Best Time of Year To Forage for Elderberries

Later summer to autumn is the most popular time to forage for elderberries. August to October specifically is the best time of the year to forage for wild elderberries. It’s also a great time of the year to use elderberries in pies, jam, and other seasonal dishes.

Where To Look for Elderberries

Elderberries wild grow in the woods, along hedges, in gardens, and along the roads from Mexico all the way up to regions as far north as the Rocky Mountains in the USA. 

They are also found in similar areas (gardens, fencerows, roadways, and woods), all around Europe. They are most likely not available at local nurseries in your region.

How To Identify Elderberry

Elderberry trees have sawtooth leaves that are oblong, with 5 to 7 leaves protruding from each stem. The trees have short trunks, that are grey to brown in color with a rough and corky appearance. They reach heights of around 50 feet tall in nature, but in gardens and yards, they are often just 12 feet to 20 feet high.

The berries themselves are black to purple in color and are arranged in clusters of dozens of individual berries. If you are identifying Elderberry sources early in the year, they should have large white flowers (which are really bunches of little tiny white flowers appearing like one wide flower).

Wild Elderberry Look-Alikes

The main elderberry look-alike out there that you need to worry about is the pokeweed or Phytolacca americana. It is a toxic herb, with narcotic flowers and hallucinogenic berries.

The berries are the same color, but are much larger than elderberries and grow in small vine-like clusters that look totally different than elderberries. 

The biggest difference between the two, however, is that elderberries grow on Elder trees whereas pokeweed is a perennial plant that grows back from a bulbous root under the ground

Aralia spinosa, or the devil’s walking stick, is another look-like that appears even more similar to elderberry than pokeweed does. Devil’s walking stick is also toxic, and should never be ingested.

Elderberry Varieties

There are approximately 10 varieties of the genus Sambucus or Elderberry. Two species outshine the rest; the American elderberry, also known as Sambucus canadensis, and the European elderberry, also known as Sambucus nigra.

The most popular Elderberry varieties for cultivating in your yard or garden include: 

  1. Adams
  2. Black Beauty
  3. Black Lace
  4. Blue
  5. Instant Karma
  6. Lemon Lace
  7. York

What Do Ripe Elderberries Look Like?

Ripe elderberries are blackish to purple in color. If the berries are still white, green, or red, they are not ripe yet and are still quite toxic. When you apply just a tiny bit of pressure to ripe berries they begin leaking juice almost immediately or simply smoosh.

Keep in mind that elderberries are not one of the berries species that continue to ripen after being picked. That means you need to wait until they are all black and purple. If not, you may accidentally ingest poisonous toxins, or unknowingly feed something toxic to someone else.

How To Harvest Elderberry

Elderberries are best harvested by snapping the end of the stem, several inches from the beginning of the berry clusters. While removing the berry clusters from the tree, hold a large open-mouth container like a bowl, or bucket, directly under the berry clusters you are harvesting (one by one). 

Once you have the clusters down, gently shake them and then run your fingers down each stem, urging each berry off of the cluster and into your container.

How To Wash Elderberries

Washing elderberries is as simple as dumping them into a bowl and running cool water over them and skimming off all the debris, dirt, insects, and bad berries that float to the surface. Repeat until you’re confident the berries are cleaned. 

You can also place them in a basic colander and run water on them, slightly shaking the colander and gently working the berries to free them of dirt and debris.

How To Store Elderberries

Properly storing elderberries begins with limiting their exposure to air, moisture, and light. They also need to be stored somewhere with a stable temperature of around 68°F to 72°F. 

If you aren’t drying them, consider using air-tight containers or special freezer bags to preserve them for extended periods of time.

How To Dry Elderberries

After washing your elderberries, if you want to dry them, lay them out in thin rows on a classic drying screen out of direct sunlight, but somewhere with plenty of air flow and a temperature of less than 70°F. 

Alternatively, you can load them into a dehydrator and dry them out much quicker. In a dehydrator, elderberries take half a day to dry. On drying screens, they take a couple of weeks.

How To Freeze Elderberries

If you opt for freezing your elderberries rather than drying them or using them right away, simply dry them off with a kitchen towel and then place them into freezer-safe bags for storage. 

Avoid packing the bags tightly with berries as you don’t want to crush any of them when you seal the air out of the bag and zip it shut.

What To Do With Elderberries

Elderberries are used for liquor as often as they are for food. That said, there is a wide variety of recipes that include these not-so-common berries; jam, jelly, pie, cake, cookies, juice, nectar, and syrup. You can also eat them raw, but it’s much safer to eat them cooked.

If you opt for eating your elderberries raw, try adding them to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, ice cream, pies and cakes, and anything else that could use a fruity topping. 

Conclusion

Elderberries aren’t the most well-known berry in the world, nor the most popular. But, those who do take an interest in them generally genuinely enjoy them quite a bit. With the information above, you should be able to find, identify, harvest, and preserve elderberries with ease!

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