Elderberries are one of the few things left in the world that almost everyone can agree are a good thing. You’ve no doubt seen them front and center on the chain drugstore shelves come cold and flu season and they’ve got the same prime real estate in most local herbalists’ cupboards—and for good reason. Birds love them, bugs love them, all manner of thicket-dwelling creatures love them, and humans have loved them for a long time as well.
Modern uses typically focus on the fruit and sometimes the flowers, but the first uses of elderberries are associated with the wood. Its scientific name Sambucus is rooted in the Greek word sambuke—a beloved wind instrument made from elder branches with their easily-hollowed pith. While most modern humans aren’t so skilled at woodcraft, we still have our thumbs (which are even better for picking berries than they are at texting). We also still have the same systems running our bodies (respiratory, cardiovascular, immune, etc.) that have coevolved to promote health with this fruit that is rich in bioactive compounds with high antioxidant properties. It’s wonderful that a wild plant has made it through the gauntlet of medical and cultural approvals to become a trusted name in the drugstore. What would be even more wonderful is if the elderberry was once again a familiar face in the field and we got a little stain back on our thumbs.
Where to Find Elderberries You can save yourself a lot of time finding and identifying plants if you start with their habitat requirements. We have multiple species of elderberry in North America. I’ll be discussing the predominant black and blue fruited elders like Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis, S. cerulea, and S. mexicana rather than the red-fruited varieties like S. racemosa, S. pubens, and S. callicarpa.
The mile-high view of elderberry habitat shows that the black-fruited elders prefer the eastern parts of the country and the blue-fruited elders, the West. Zoom in and you’ll see that outside of their regional preferences, they’re all into the same things: full sun and wet feet. An elder in a roadside ditch is like a pig in shit. Other favorite haunts are riparian zones, wet meadows, cliff bases, field edges, and sunny drainages. In the spring you’ll want to scan these damp, sunny places for shrubs frosted with lacy, cream-colored flower heads called “cymes.” Pick a few flowers for tea, fritters, and cordial, then note these places to come back in late summer or early fall when they’re drooping with fruit.
How to Identify Elderberries In most cases, elderberries will present as a medium-sized shrub (the western species being more prone to small tree form) with gray/tan bark and raised lenticels (like the horizontal lines on birch bark but more a dot than a line). If you cut through a woody stem, you’ll see a core of light pith. The cymes are a delicate, flat-topped head of five-petaled, creamy blossoms that leave a dust of golden pollen on your skin. I don’t say this just to use flowery language—it really sets them apart from other white flowers that may be blooming at the same time—reach in and check your arm hair for pollen. The leaves are opposite, pinnately compound groups of (generally 7) serrated leaflets that smell foul when crushed. The fruit of western elders are true blue when ripe and coated with a white bloom, while the ripe fruit of eastern elders are nearly black. Neither one tastes very good straight off the bush, and that’s fine because you don’t want to eat elderberries raw—humans don’t digest them well unless cooked. Only the fruit and flowers are edible; all other parts are toxic.
There may also be similar-looking plants in similar habitats, but only certain parts of the plant will look the same while the plant as a whole will not. Be sure to know which plant you’re collecting from as they can often grow tangled amongst each other. A few plants worth knowing that can cause confusion are pokeweed, water hemlock, dogwoods, and devil’s walking stick. Pokeweed and hemlock are very toxic, so please do your research and as with any food. If you’re not certain, don’t eat it.
How to Harvest Elderberries Snap the whole heads of fully ripe fruit from the main stems between thumb and forefingers at the base of the cyme. Freeze overnight (or until you have time to clean). This will make the fruit pop clean off the stem rather than clinging and smashing. Over a large bowl, run a fork through the small stems, raking the fruit into the bowl. The fruit can be used now or refrozen.
How to Grow Elderberries I often feaviest fruiting plants in roadside ditches. This is a bummer but also an opportunity. I don’t promote eating from roadsides (unless it’s a food truck), but I do promote collecting propagative plant material from ditches to bring home and grow your own.
Elderberries are shockingly easy to grow from cuttings. In early spring while the plant is still dormant, snip the ends of live stems anywhere from 6 to 24 inches. I like to take longer cuttings and then divide into 8-inch sections with two leaf nodes each. Choose a spot in your yard and push the cuttings halfway or more into the ground with buds pointing up. A little mulch around the base helps but isn’t essential. Grow your own—it’ll keep you off the streets.
How to Cook Elderberries Most fruit brings to mind sticky sweet preserves and pastries, but elderberries fill a niche of palatable medicine and versatile flavor in food and drink. They can be used dried or fresh to simmer down into rich juices, syrups, and sauces that straddle the line between culinary and apothecary, a true ambassador of food as medicine. I like to make a big batch of syrup to incorporate into many other things throughout the year like jellies, cocktails, mocktails, pan sauces, mop sauces, glazes, vinegars, shrubs, wines, and kombuchas.
Classic Elderberry Syrup Recipe
You can add all kinds of things to this base recipe for flavor or health purposes. Some of my favorites additions are ginger, rosehips, wild cherries, or medicinal mushrooms. A basic syrup like this is tasty enough that kids will sop it up with pancakes if you let them and you’ll be slipping it into cocktails, desserts, and pan sauces every chance you get. But it’s also precious enough that you’ll savor every spoonful of wellbeing.