Elderberries! The branches of these humble roadside and streambank shrubs, festooned in June with flat-topped clusters of airy white flowers, now drip with gorgeous, deep-purple clusters of berries.
Botanists treat our common American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) as a subspecies of the European black elderberry (Sambucus nigra), used since prehistoric times for food, drink, and medicine. The plant also boasts a rich folklore.
Only the blossoms and the very ripe, cooked berries are considered edible; unripe berries, leaves and stems contain mildly toxic amounts of cyanide compounds. The berries of some elder species are toxic, too. If you want to use elder flowers or berries, make sure you have identified the plant and its berries correctly. Collect only deep-blue/purple berry clusters that droop downwards and grow from woody shrubs. Don’t collect berry clusters that grow upright, and don’t collect red elderberries.
In past years, I’ve harvested the flower clusters and battered them into fritters or dried them for winter teas. I’ve used the berries in jams (great with blackberries) and to add crunch to pie fillings. Though I don’t make them myself, elderberry wines and cordials have served humans since prehistoric times to foster both health and conviviality.
This year I made elderberry syrup. Herbalists consider both the flowers and (especially) the berries potent antivirals; they’ve been used for centuries as both preventatives and treatments for respiratory illnesses.
An elderberry patch half a mile down the road yielded so abundantly, I harvested two quarts of berries in less than 10 minutes.
It was easy to remove the berries from their stems using a gentle, downward milking motion. Then I rinsed them in cool water. I’ve learned to wear ratty shorts and t-shirts when handling elderberries, and I take care not to let them scatter on the floor or countertops. Elderberry juice serves as a strong dyestuff that’s difficult to remove once it has soaked into anything porous.
I froze most of the elderberries I harvested, reserving only a cup for making my syrup. Here’s how I did it:
- I put the cup of berries, three cups of water, a cinnamon stick, four whole cloves, and two tablespoons of grated ginger root into a stainless saucepan, brought the mixture to a boil, then reduced the heat and simmered on low until the liquid was reduced to about half its original volume.
- Then I poured the mixture into a stainless-steel mesh strainer set over a glass bowl and used a wooden pestle to push the pulp through the mesh to separate it from the spices and the seeds.
- I added a cup of raw honey to the warm elderberry liquid, stirred well, waited for the mixture to cool, and decanted it into a sterilized three-quarter quart canning jar.
- After putting a lid on the jar, I set it into the refrigerator. As long as I keep it cold, my elderberry syrup should last the winter.
I’ll take (or administer) a “medicinal” teaspoonful after exposure to a respiratory infection, or at the first sign of one, and every three hours or so if a cold or flu does attack. The honeyed syrup also makes an effective cough suppressant.
The sweet syrup can also flavor a cup of winter tea or top a fruit dessert.
- Collect only deep-blue/purple berry clusters that droop downwards and grow from woody shrubs. Don’t collect berry clusters that grow upright, and don’t collect red elderberries.
- Don't eat raw elderberries, and (even though they have their uses under the care of experienced herbalists) don’t use the leaves, bark or twigs.
- Because honey poses a risk of causing infant botulism, don’t give elderberry syrup to children younger than two years old.
- Don’t use elderberry tinctures or syrups if you’re pregnant or taking prescription medicines without consulting your health professional first.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.