One September I was driving with a friend up to Tehachapi Mountain park when a striking cluster of berries along the side of the road caught my eye. A spark in my memory brought to mind an article by my longtime favorite local columnist that I’d read the same time last year. Wild Elderberries? Could they be? I quickly stopped to grab a few and some leaves for identification.
After I found the original article and a few other bits of information about the berries, the time felt right to return again and try to figure out if they were ripe. This proved a bit tricky–first, most of the berries of our local variety have a bluish-white coating on them (natural yeast), so it’s hard to see the color underneath. But also, as I learned later, the berries all ripen at different times, even in the same area or on the same bush!
“…Jessie?” A quizzical passerby recognized me as my son and I carefully gathered a bucketful of the best looking ones. But of course, it was far from my first time picking things along a roadside, so I’ve mostly grown out of the embarrassment.
Here are a few tips based on what I have learned about wild elderberries so far.
This post contains affiliate links for your convenience and to help support this blog.
There are different varieties of elderberries and some are more edible than others. Black Elderberry is most commonly used in supplements. As with any wild berry, make sure to get an accurate identification before eating!
- Stems, leaves, and roots are all considered poisonous, and even the berry seeds or raw berries can bother the stomach. Please don’t run a whole branch through the juicer!!
- Elderberries should be picked when completely ripe. Berries will be dark purple, or blackish-blue (even if some varieties have a white coating). Stems next to the berries may also begin to turn purple or red.
- Berries ripen at different times, even on the same bush!
- The best way to tell if a cluster of berries is ripe is to pinch one of the berries to check the color of the juice. The darker it is, the riper it is, but under-ripe berries will have green, pale, or clear juice.
- Once picked, it is best to cook or freeze the berries within 12 hours. At least for some varieties, the berries will begin to get a fermented flavor soon after that.
If you can’t find them wild, why not try planting some in your yard?
Storing & De-stemming
- Rinse, then freeze the berries on the stem to make them easier to separate from the stem before cooking (remember, too much stem can be poisonous!)
- You can use a fork or wide tooth comb to pluck off the berries, or hit the bag of frozen berries to knock them off. Gently pulling with my fingers worked fine for me.
- If you have a lot of stems or debris still, this site recommends rolling them down a slanted towel (debris will stick to the towel). It’s very difficult to remove every bit of stem, but since I cook the berries I have not had any ill effects from the little bits of remaining stem.
- Give them a quick, gentle rinse in a bowl of water if you’d like and pour off any debris that comes to the top. Add a drop of soap or a splash of vinegar to the water when rinsing if you want to be extra sure they’re clean (again, because I cook them, I often don’t bother with this).
- Drain in a colander or strainer as needed.
Boil the berries for 5-10 minutes with just enough water to cover them and keep them from burning. The amount of water you use will determine how thick or strong your juice/tea is.
Some recipes say to mash the berries or even use an immersion blender, but some say it’s best to use gentler methods (like a steam juicer) to extract a purer juice, leaving the berries in tact. I tried a little of both and I prefer to boil and strain them without mashing. Mashing made the berries more difficult to strain and I got the sense that the “purer juice” camp was right.
I used a pot like the one in the affiliate links below, and the colander lid was just the perfect size to easily strain the juice into a jar once the berries were done boiling.
If you do decide to mash and strain the berries, a mesh nut milk bag would make things a lot easier.
You can use the juice plain (I thought it was a perfect addition to lemonade, tea, or applesauce!) or return it to a clean pan and add honey, sugar, or maple crystals to make syrup.
You can also buy dried elderberries online. If you want to try a foolproof ready made elderberry syrup kit, check out the ones below!
What do you plan to do with your elderberry juice? Any favorite recipes? Let me know in the comments!
I’m also including this link to some elderberry products from my all time favorite vitamin & health company, including some that were developed just for 2020. There is an elderberry tea or protein shake for regular use, but two of the products are made specifically for when you start to get sick.
“Defend and Resist Complex” is the cheaper of the two, can be chewed or swallowed, and contains elderberry, echinacea, zinc, and more. “Triple Defense Boost” is more pricy but is clearly the company’s specifically researched response to 2020’s health needs. According to the product description, it is “packed with vitamin C, zinc, vitamin D, plant-based adaptogens, elderberry, and more. These ingredients play a critical role in healthy immune function and have been shown in laboratory studies to boost Natural Killer cell activity by 3x and increase lymphocyte proliferation by 5.8x.”
Sounds like the perfect thing to have on hand in case of a positive test. I’ve used this company for almost 4 years and their super extensive research and testing is part of why I love them so much!