An Abundance of Elderberry Uses

Elderberry uses cover such a broad range, a simple bush is a veritable supermarket.

  • 069 elderberry uses - blossoms
    Proving the diversity of elderberry uses, even its white petaled blossoms can be an ingredient in tea, pancakes, custards, and muffins.
  • 069 elderberry uses - berry clusters
    These ripe purple berries can provide a forager's feast!

  • 069 elderberry uses - blossoms
  • 069 elderberry uses - berry clusters

Upon moving from the Midwest to the Idaho mountains, I was faced with the task of learning to recognize scads of new woodland plants. Somehow, though—no matter where I might look—one particular shrub kept catching my eye. At first I simply noticed the plentiful plant's showy compound leaves, each with 5 to 11 leaflets. But then in June (after everything else had bloomed) this tall bush suddenly became a striking hillside ornamental packed with clusters of delicate white flowers. Still later—right at the ragged end of summer—the blossoms were transformed into bunches of tiny purple berries. Some of those tasty-looking, double-handful-sized fruit clumps became so heavy their stems drooped down with the weight!

When I quizzed my nearest neighbor about this abundant yet mysterious shrub, she said, "Why, they're plain ol' good-eatin' elderberries, child." So I decided to harvest a few fruity clusters and kitchen-test them. The berries were so easy to pick that I was able to gather a bagful in no time at all. I soon found out, though, that the tedious task of separating the individual fruits from their tiny twigs more than made up for the "pickability" of the many-berried clumps. And to tell the truth, the little morsels didn't taste all that good to me raw, either (though I've learned since then that some folks like 'em fine that way).

I was beginning to wonder if this particular wild food wasn't better left in the woods. But I quickly reversed my opinion when I started cooking with them and discovered a multitude of elderberry uses. The tidbits were downright delectable when baked (especially if I added a touch of lemon to my fixings): I just substituted elders in my blueberry recipes and turned out dandy pies, cobblers, and muffins. (The fruits became naturally mellow and mouthwatering as soon as I'd dried a few bunches, too.)

Once I'd achieved these culinary successes, I became so enchanted with elderberries that I even researched the curious plant in a field guide ... and learned that blue, purple, and black specimens of Sambucus canadensis are common all over the U.S., and all are renowned for being finer sources of vitamin C than even oranges or tomatoes! There is also a less-common red-fruited variety—Sambucus racemosa—that's been reported to make some folks sick. However, since the good elders are all blue, purple, or black when ripe, the racemosa berries are easy to avoid.

After my initial enthusiastic elderberry spree, I had to catch up on a number of neglected homestead chores and pretty much forgot about the foraged fruit for a couple of weeks. Then one morning the same neighbor who first told me about elderberries sent her two boys over with some shopping bags stuffed with the purple clusters. The fruit actually looked a little old and dull to me, but when I called up to thank the kind woman—she explained that those elder rounds came from her special patch, and that the dusty look of the berries meant they had reached the peak of ripeness. "That 'bloom' is caused by the light frosts we've been having," she told me. "You watch. The birds will gobble up all the berries now."  

Elderberry Jelly

I was glad to have such an abundant supply of berries, but I didn't feel like "detwigifying" every single purple fruit, so I decided to simply clean out the leaves and larger branches and make juice. I boiled and mashed the clumps in small amounts of water, and then I hung the pulp—twigs and all—in jelly bags until all the liquid dripped out.

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