Sunday, September 26, 2010

Elderberries and the Ethics of Foraging

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) were new to me.  I'd made the acquaintance of elderflowers in the form of some divine mixed drinks, but I had no idea what to expect of the berry.  It turns out they're like mini blueberries, with potent medicinal uses and off-the-charts antioxidants.  A delicious superfood that grows locally?  When I got a tip that the last elderberries of the season could be found in a foraging-friendly spot, I rounded up my posse.

My source seemed reliable, but still I was worried.  What if we'd driven all that way to find shriveled up berries, or bushes stripped clean?  I didn't want to disappoint my Homesteading Circle.

In search of Blue Elderberries (Sambucus nigra ssp cerulea) we followed a creekside trail, coming across cones full of pine nuts and bright red rose hips (expect future postings on these gems).  We only found a few elderberry bushes long past their prime.  I was starting to feel a little sad, in spite of the sunny day and the bag full of other gleanings.

Suddenly, we hit the motherlode.  We came across a huge bush, twice my height, heavy with plump ripe berries.  There were so many that we filled four bags full and still left plenty for the birds. 

The Ethics of Foraging, or How Not to be a Jerk

Before I go any farther, I want to mention a few points –  basic courtesies really – to help ensure that you're not harming plants, local ecosystems, or yourself.

  • Know where to go. Foraging is illegal in most protected natural areas, and harvesting elderberries in East Bay Regional Parks will get you a $500 ticket.  Don't do it.
  • Respect endangered plants. Many popular medicinals have fragile populations that need conservation, not harvesting.
  • Harvest lightly. Know how to gather from a plant in a way that doesn't damage its ability to reproduce for the next year.  An example would be leaving the base of certain mushrooms in the soil to regenerate for next year.
  • Be mindful of the surroundings.  Instead of trampling surrounding plants or creating erosion in a mad rush to collect, leave the ecosystem intact.
  • Save some for others.  It's bad form to strip an area clean.  Other animals and humans may rely on this plant as well.  Good foraging stewards leave some bounty behind.
  • Don't poison yourself! Never harvest a plant unless you are 100% sure of its identification, proper processing and uses.  Berries especially can be tricky.

For instance, the leaves, stems and unripe berries of the elderberry plant are poisonous - all except the ripe berries and flowers. It sounds dire, I know, but it just means you need to be meticulous in removing all those little stems before you get to the good part. The processing did take forever, even with advice I'd been given to freeze the elderberries which supposedly makes it easier for them to be separated from their stem.  I don't think I froze them long enough, and hours later I was still picking off tiny bits of leaf and stem.

Syrup, liqueur, jelly

 I had such an amazing quantity of these beautiful berries that I was able to make three different recipes with them: a honeyed syrup, a vodka-lemon peel liqueur, and 3 small jars of jelly.  The “syrup,” made with honey from our bees, was incredibly delicious and more like a soda. Due to the elderberry's medically proven anti-viral properties, I had planned to save the syrup for flu season, but we finished it within a few days. It was irresistible.  I'm hoping the liqueur will turn out as well.

Simple Elderberry Liqueur
1 pint fresh elderberries
1 quart vodka
Several curlicues of lemon rind
1/3 c. sugar

Place the elderberries into a quart jar, add lemon rind and sugar, and fill to the top with vodka.  The berries don't need to be crushed.  Shake the jar to distribute the sugar, then leave it in a darkened space for at least a month.  The longer you leave it, the darker it gets.  Shake it whenever you think about it; once a week is great.  The result is perfect for both winter flu season and cocktail parties – how often can you say that?


  1. WOW! I had no idea! I've never even heard of these.

  2. Yum! A friend just shared some great elderberry picking spots with us this year. Got an ok amount, made elderberry chutney and jam. Hoping for lots more next year! Good tips on picking etiquette too.