Adventures with elderberries

Sambucus berriesHippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, called the elder plant his “medicine chest.”

Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra (of European origin), or the native North American Sambucus canadensis, yields abundant blossoms and berries that are high in antioxidants (like blueberries and cranberries). Today’s herbalists, like Hippocrates, also reach for elderberry for its immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory and anti-fever actions.

elderberry bushIn addition, this bush is easy to grow.  It is happy in sunny locations, likes a range of soils of moderate fertility, and even has some flood tolerance, although it doesn’t like the soil to dry out when it is young.  The spreading bush grows six to 12 feet tall and wide.

IMG_20150814_155904589_HDRWe have four established elderberry bushes in our yard, and at a recent NOFA workshop I  learned about ways to propagate my own new bushes.  The presenter, Gregory Ormsby Mori, said that there are several ways to multiply the number of bushes. The easiest is called “dormant hardwood cuttings” gathered while you are pruning your bushes (between fall and early spring, before bud break). As you cut off some of the previous season’s new but brown woody growth, collect pieces of pencil thickness. Cutting the base at an angle and the top flat, make sure you have 2-4 leaf nodes on each piece.  Then you just stick the pointed end in the ground with some nodes below and some above the surface of the soil. Most will form roots and sprout leaves without any further work on your part besides a bit of watering and weeding.  Who knew!? One can also root softwood cuttings early in the growing season (May to June), after dipping the bottom of the cuttings in a root hormone powder or solution.

IMG_20150820_114632831Another thing I learned at the workshop was two ways to separate the berries from their stems.  Elderberries are tiny (about 3/16″ in diameter) and their stems, like the leaves and branches, contain toxic compounds, some of which are emetic (they can make you throw up!)

Previously, when I cut off the heads (cymes) heavily loaded with these black, shiny berries, I spent long hours picking off each little berry before processing.  Tedious!  But  two quicker ways to do the job are:  1) Freezing the whole cluster of berries and then removing the still frozen berries and  2) using a homemade “destemmer” constructed by cutting a piece of hardware cloth to fit over a container (bowl or bucket) and  gently rubbing the clusters on the hardware cloth (shown in photo). The berries just fall into the container. The small number of fine stems remaining are easily picked out.

This year I made elderflower syrup using a recipe from my neighbor, Jane:

Place 30 fresh flower heads in large non-reactive bowl.  Zest, then slice a few organic citrus fruits (I used 1 lemon and 2 oranges).  Remove seeds and add to bowl.

Boil 8 cups of water and then dissolve about 4 cups of sugar into the hot water.  Pour mixture over flowers and fruit in the bowl.  Cover with a tea towel.  Let the mixture sit in the basement for three days, stirring thoroughly once a day .  Strain through a tea towel or jelly cloth into a large pan and bring the syrup to a boil.  Dissolve about 3 Tablespoons of citric acid into the syrup (optional),  Pour the syrup into sterilized glass jars.  This will last up to  a year in the refrigerator.  Use as a drink.  Add 1 T. or more of syrup to a glass of seltzer water.

And as usual, I am also drying berries to brew into a healthful syrup during the cold and flu season.

Although currently most of the elderberry consumed in the U.S. is imported from Europe, we have an opportunity to grow elderberry locally for juice and wine, jams and jellies, food color and, of course, for our home medicine chest.



3 thoughts on “Adventures with elderberries

  1. Thank you, Betsy, for putting in the energy it takes to make this post and all the others. I really like reading them, you provide a lot of information I haven’t been aware of.

    I have been making elder flower syrup for many years, and invariably they turn out better than lemonade (and require a whole lot less lemons too!). I don’t have a bush in my back yard, so I try to find bushes in the neighborhood. This year I was more observant and found a lot more flowers than I could use for the syrup, so when the berries got ripe (just two weeks ago) I collected a lot of them to make elderberry wine. I did spend a lot of time brushing off the berries from the stem just with my hand (using a comb or hardware cloth makes sense) the freezing is a curious idea.
    I am not aware of the toxicity, (so :?-) it didn’t affect me so far, although I am not good eliminating stems being in my brews.


  2. Pingback: Past posts: A simple living index | Adventures in the good life

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