The elderberry is an arching deciduous shrub I’ve long associated with fancy lady beverages, overblown cottage gardens, elaborate hats, and other rare and beautiful relics of bygone days – but it’s back now and all the rage. Copious anecdotal evidence and some preliminary medical research finds elderberry concentrates and syrups can boost the immune system and shorten the duration and severity of minor colds and cases of flu. At the very least it tastes good and is rich in vitamin C!
Fortunately, it’s easy and rewarding to forage or grow, and simple to make elderberry syrup for topping treats and adding to drinks. I consider it a part of the wellness care routine, and my kids love by it the spoonful whether they’re under the weather or not.
All elderberries are in the genus Sambucus, and several species grow wild in the US and western Europe. The medicinal native species with edible berries are Sambucus nigra (European Black Elder), Sambucus canadensis (American Elderberry), and Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea (Blue Elder). All three are found in large overlapping ranges in continental North America, most commonly near stream banks, meadows, and farmlands, and in light shade at forest edges. In the west we see the Blue Elder; a vigorous suckering shrub that produces small but abundant berries in almost any conditions with enough water. The berries start out green, turn deep purple blue, then as they ripen, coat themselves in a chalky blue to white film. In the eastern US and Europe I understand its mostly Black Elder and American or Common Elder, which ripen to shades of glossy purple to black.
Important: avoid red berries! Red elderberries are toxic!
When I worked at CalFlora Nursery (a local treasure) I learned of elderberries as a California native species I could recommend to customers as a part of an appealing habitat garden for attracting beneficial insects and butterflies, and for its lovely clusters of lacy white flowers followed by berries birds adore. Soon I began to spot them in the wild – elderberries grow everywhere around the creek beds throughout Sonoma County – they had been under my nose the entire time! When I heard rave reviews of the complex delicious flavor and health benefits of elderberry syrup, I already knew elderberries were an abundant local resource. I scanned the landscape constantly for elders and began to point out them out to my family as summer eased into fall.
Our first elderberry season we gathered perhaps four pounds. They ripen in bright and fertile conditions as early as June around Santa Rosa, and as late as October in cooler places like the Healdsburg area creeks and moist spots all around the west county. We liked the syrup so much we’ve made the elderberry harvest an autumn tradition in our family.
Here’s a video Dylan made last fall (year three of elderberry experiments) when we were showing some friends how to forage for them: Elderberry Harvesting
My first year working with elderberries I looked up this method by Hank Shaw using an immersion (or stick) blender for the crush and I find it works beautifully. I use a large press bag instead of a food mill, and the stick blender on low breaks up the berries thoroughly and leaves the numerous bitter seeds intact to be separated in the bag:
We snip the bunches into paper bags, hand pick them fresh off the stems, rinse them, float them in cold water, clean out all the duff, careful to remove all green berries, stems, dried blossoms, and other debris. All parts of the plants are toxic except the berries, and the berry juice is irritating and potentially nauseating when consumed raw, but bringing it to a gentle boil and then a simmer for a few minutes fixes the juice. I’ve eaten a few fresh berries each time I’ve processed them and never had any stomach trouble, but they’re not very exciting that way – tannic, tart, earthy, and centered with a hard gritty seed. The fruity character is there in the background, but it’s shy and needs some help coming forward.
I’ve experimented over the years with sugar and concentration level: I like it best with about one cup of sugar per pound of berries, no added water, and simmered until the volume is reduced by almost half – pretty thick and concentrated. The second year I made some batches this way that were jellied after canning, so there’s enough natural pectin there to do that if that’s what you’re going for. I like the security of canning the syrup in a water bath, so I can give it away without anxiety about food spoilage – but it’s not strictly necessary. This year we tried adding some water and reducing the juice less, because we thought we might extract more juice from the pulp with our new press bag, we were going for a brighter flavor, and we wanted to have more half pint jars to give away.
Many ask about making this syrup with honey. That’s perfectly fine – it tastes good and of course local raw honey is good for you, but don’t can it, just simmer and strain the juice, cool it some, mix about a cup per pound of berry juice with your favorite honey (I favor blackberry blossom), and keep it in a jar in your fridge for up to six months. It works best for small batches.
Next year it will be time to taste the elderberry wine I made last fall and am presently aging, and I’m looking forward to making some elderberry syrup sweetened with lavender honey. Last week I ran across this interesting fermented elderberry honey recipe, so I want to try that as well: