Elderberries are one of the easiest wild foods to identify and one of the most "super" of foods. Yet they also have a much wider range of variation than most foods you're used to. From bitter to sweet, dry to juicy, intense to subtle, even literally form black to white -- elderberries can vary a lot from stand to stand or even on the same tree. Like a grape-grower learning the art of making wine, being an elderberry forager means learning to dance with all its different flavors, aromas, and textures!
Blue elderberries (Sambucus nigra, caerulea, or mexicana, depending on your botany book) are ready to eat when they fall from the stem into your hand. You can gently massage a cluster of berries while holding a bag or bowl underneath, and collect those that fall. All the berries in a cluster often do not ripen at once. Ripe berries can be sky-blue, deep purple to black, or almost white, but will never be green.
The berries are edible raw and are even better dried. They will sun-dry into "elderaisins" in just a day or two if left in the sun. (Cover them with cheesecloth or something else to keep the birds off.) They also dry right on the tree sometimes; dried, deep purple fruit is a delicious riverside snack.
Many people also process the elderberries into jam, juice, or a medicinal syrup (elderberries are intensely anti-viral and great for colds or flus). This can be as simple as mashing the berries, heating them up, and canning or freezing them. A bit of honey and/or lime juice will enhance the flavor.
If you find elderberries too bitter or wild-flavored, you can sweeten them by:
- Drying them
- Heating them
- Harvesting them after the first frost, if you can find a stand where the birds have left any fruit.
Many people are hesitant to harvest elderberries because they've heard that a special, rare beetle -- the beautiful Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle, or VELB to its admirers -- depends on elderberry to survive. This is true, but the beetle lives in and feeds on the wood and bark of the tree. Harvesting berries and flowers will not harm the beetle at all. What will harm the beetle is killing or cutting back an elderberry tree. That's why the biggest threat to VELB is development (and sometimes agriculture), not foraging. If you want to help the VELB, you can help new elderberry trees grow, by keeping wild areas wild and riparian zones messy! Piles of sticks, thickets of brush, heaps of flotsam and tangles of vines are all good for the elderberry because they create habitat for the songbirds who eat elderberries and spread their seeds. Elder seeds are more likely to germinate after passing through birds' digestive tract, so to help elderberries, always leave plenty of fruit -- and plenty of messy habitat -- for the birds.
Please note: Elderberry stems, leaves, and roots are all toxic. (Tiny bits of berry-stem won't hurt you, but try to avoid them when eating your berries. You'll find they taste bad anyway.) Elderberry leaves do have interesting medicinal uses as external treatments (for the skin), which we'll explore in a spring medicine-making class, so check back for that early next year!