Elderberry produce tiny white flowers in masses, or umbrels, like the tiny white flowers on Queen Anne’s Lace or Cow’s Parsley, that can be up to 30 cm (12 inches) across. From these, the berries grow in clusters or sprays. Only the berries should be used, because the flowers, leaves and bark have some toxins in them. The berries must be ripe; unripe ones are a bit toxic.
The American Elder is found in the eastern half of North America. It grows wild as a perennial shrub, anywhere from 1 metre to 4 metres (3 to 13 feet) tall. The shrubs can pollinate themselves, but produce more fruit if cross-pollinated. Its berries are first red, then turning blue then finally a blackish purple as they ripen. The berries are not really sold commercially.
The European Elder grows as a tree up to 9 metres (30 feet) tall.
From flowers, the fruit takes 5 to 15 days to appear. The fruit is ripe when the weight of the fruit starts to drag the clusters down. A berry will contain 3 to 5 seeds. Both North American and European berries contain very little pectin. The berries are not eaten raw because they are too sour. They are usually cooked for wines, jellies, pies, syrups or made into wine.
Crushed Elderberry leaves, bark and stem have a very rank smell to them. North American Indians used to use these as an insect repellant.
A version of the American Elder called Blue Elder (Sambucus cerulea Raf aka Sambucus glauca) grows in the Western half of North America. The tree can grow up to 17 metres (55 feet) tall.
Another variety, the Red Elderberry (Sambucus pubens) has red fruits which are toxic; the fruit grows in rounded, ball clusters, instead of flat clusters. Avoid the berries and the flowers from this tree.
Elderberries are used in making the liqueur called “Sambuca.”
Some people mash the berries and use them raw, some say it is better to cook the berries first to destroy any toxins in them, and to destroy the Samburgrinic acid, which has a smell and taste that many people don’t like. When the berries ferment, they exude in the first week some green waxy stuff. Elderberry Wine wasn’t always fully fermented into wine. Elderberry Wine is often used to flavour and colour Red Windsor cheese.
To make Elderberry Pie, washed, stemmed Elderberries are spread out in a pie shell, then sprinkled with sugar and a thickener such as flour or tapioca. They are then covered with a top crust and baked 30 to 40 minutes.
Fried Elder Flowers
The flower is sometimes referred to as “Elderblow.” A flower head is dipped in batter and deep fried, then sprinkled with icing sugar. In Italy, this is called Fritelle di Fiori di Sambuca. They add some grappa to the batter. Some people also use the flowers to make tea with. You should not pick the flowers to eat unless you are absolutely sure that the bush you are picking them from is not the poisonous red one.
To harvest, use scissors to snip off the berry clusters. At home, freeze the clusters of berries, then when they are frozen and brittle, use a fork to comb the berries off the stems (this will take some time). Wash, and let soak a bit in water for stray stem bits and bugs to float to the surface. To make a juice, put in a pot and add just enough water to cover them. Bring to boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, mashing towards the end, then strain through a cloth.
They will colour your hands for a while if you don’t wear rubber gloves.
Even if you wanted to, don’t eat a lot of raw elderberries, because they can cause tummy aches. It is considered safest to cook elderberries before eating.
The seeds of Red Elder contain traces of the alkaloid sambucine and hydrocyanic acid (the same as is in apple seeds). Though some say the red are safe to eat they are if cooked, and others say they are only safe if boiled then strained to get the seeds out, most authorities say to avoid them entirely under any circumstance or preparation method. In fact, many sources advise avoiding all North American types of elderberries and using only European varieties.
1 cup fresh or frozen = 150 g (5 oz)
To freeze, wash and pack into freezer bags, and freeze for up to 6 months.
The Romans made a hair dye from Elderberries.
In England, some estates allowed the poor to harvest as much elder wood as they wanted. The wood is a mediocre burning wood, though: it won’t coal, or last through the night, and doesn’t give off much heat compared to other woods.
“Hot elder wine was sold in the winter in penny and halfpenny measures, with a small piece of toast alongside, to dip into the wine. This, said one street seller, appealed to the working classes, ‘but not the better order of them.’ ” — Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City. London: Atlantic Books. 2012. Page 287.
Literature & Lore
“I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.” — French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
Sambucus nigra L. Caprifoliaceae is the European variety; Sambucus canadensis is the American variety.