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Harvesting elderberries is a rite of summer or early autumn for people all over the United States, Canada and Europe. Here are some tips and tricks for harvesting elderberries when it’s elderberry season near you.
First off, I am talking about black or blue elderberries, which are Sambucus nigra, which has several subspecies. I don’t like red elderberries, which are S. racemosa, but some people do. This article doesn’t cover them.
Second, I am talking about ripe berries, not elderflowers, which come earlier in spring. If that’s what you’re looking for, I have recipes for elderflower cordial, elderflower fritters and elderflower liqueur elsewhere on this site.
Most of the 5o states, as well as parts of Mexico and Canada, as well as all of Europe have elderberries. This guide from the USDA should get you started on finding elderberries.
Elderberries like to live near water, but not be wet. I find them near rivers a lot, on well watered mountainsides, even in large hedgerows in places like France and England. They are a large bush or sometimes a small tree — there’s a 20-foot tree living near my home in Folsom, California.
The berries are on large bunches, and will often droop down when they are getting ripe. I’ve never seen elderberry season start before May, even in Florida, although in recent years things have been ripening earlier and earlier.
In most places, elderberries don’t come ripe until September, but in the South and Southern California they can ripen as early as May, and here in NorCal we start getting ripe elderberries in late June. Elderberry season starts in earnest in the Sierra Nevada in September, as you get higher in altitude.
So depending on where you go, you can get ripe elderberries from May until November.
This photo shows elderberry leaves really nicely, as well as the ripe berries. Note the red stems. This is key. Harvesting elderberries before they are fully ripe will give you problems when it comes time to remove them from the stems. Ask me how I know. These are still unripe:
See the green stems? Yeah, they were a bear to get off the stem.
The secret to elderberries, it seems, is that they are a rolling bush: Parts of some bushes are still in flower while the berries below have already ripened. Even when I picked my stash of elderflowers in May there were green berries on some.
Incidentally, you should know that the stems and unripe berries are toxic — not horribly so, but you want to minimize them in any elderberry recipe — and some people get an upset stomach eating raw elderberries. I do not, but some I know to.
Beware, slackers! Ripe elderberries are sweet — sweet enough that the deer like them very much. We saw a lot of nibbled-off spots on the bushes while harvesting elderberries in summer. By September I suspect the only remaining elderberries will be too high for the deer to get; and then you need to worry about birds.
I use a knife or scissors to cut off the bunches, collecting them in a paper grocery bag. Gather several bags, so you have plenty to work with.
Once you get your elderberries you need to take the berries off the stem, which can take some time.
This is the least fun part of dealing with elderberries, but it needs to be done: The stems and leaves of the plant are toxic, and definitely bitter. You need to be patient and have a light hand, however, as the berries are fragile. Work with small portions of each cluster at a time, and gently rake your half-open hand over the berries, letting them fall into a bowl set beneath you.
Again, let me stress the word “gentle.” Unripe berries hold onto the stem, ripe ones fall off easily. And you don’t want to eat unripe berries.
Cooking with Elderberries
What to do with all these berries? Admire them, to start. Poured into a large, flat Tupperware, they look like $10,000 worth of caviar: Shiny, tiny black orbs. So pretty! Dip your face close, and you will get the unmistakable aroma of winegrapes.
It was at this moment I realized just how good these could be in the hands of a competent winemaker — only you’ll never find one working with elderberries in California, as this place heaps so much scorn on “fruit” wines that I can barely mention them in public. Tyranny of the Grape, I call it.
I make elderberry wine every couple years. To do it right you need a lot of berries. I reckon at least 3 pounds per gallon, and 5 pounds per gallon is better.
I also make elderberry liqueur with whole berries in vodka with lemon zest. It’s damn good with just a little bit of added sugar.
The British also make a curious condiment with elderberries called Pontack. It’s a little like a vinegary mashup between elderberry syrup and Worcestershire. It’s really good with venison and duck.
May favorite ways to preserve the harvest from elderberry season are the aforementioned syrup, wine, liqueur, and pontack. But after harvesting elderberries you can dehydrate them for another day. Set your dehydrator to 135°F for, well, a while. It takes up to 14 hours to get them leathery.
You can also pickle elderberries in a similar way to pickled blueberries.