This post was originally published in August 2015, and updated in August 2021.
These days it’s best to remember to grab a bag and stick it in my pocket before we go on an evening bike ride or walk. Chances are, I’ll spot a bush full of wild plums just turning pink, or a grove of elderberries that I didn’t know existed. And I know that if I take a few minutes to pick them and bring them home with me, I’ll have the makings of an excellent winter tonic, a delicious wine or fizzy drink, or a tasty, vibrant deep purple jelly.
Foraging for elderberries is as simple and low-tech as you can get. I regard the elderberry as a treasure that is well worth my time to seek out in the fall.
Here is everything you need to know about doing your own elderberry treasure-hunting.
It’s Counterintuitive, but it’s true
Spring is the best time to watch for wild elderberries. That’s when the showy, creamy blossoms show off the location of the bushes. It is then that the savvy forager and lover-of-elderberries takes note and squirrels away these locations in the springtime-joy-filled brain, for future reference and foraging possibilities.
It’s also a great time to investigate who owns the land, and gain permission to pick. It is, indeed, worth a bit of brain storage (note-taking is smart too!) to remember the location of these bushes, because they aren’t so easy to spot in the fall, when you are racing the birds for first dibs on the berries. Not to mention the deer.
Or my little sister Anne. She is as devoted to elderberries and all the wonderful products you can make from them as I am. But we both have our favorite spots to pick.
Oh the cleverness of elderberries!
The frothy cream-colored panicles of the elderberry bushes in May give way to tiny green buds, which then develop into fat purple berries by August. The heavy clusters of ripe berries tend to droop with the weight, making them, in the fall when they are ripe, much harder to spot.
Isn’t it so clever that the elderberries are ready to pick just as the weather begins to turn cool, and the seasonal colds and flus begin to make their way around? Elderberry winter tonic is my first defense against the seasonal viruses that go around. Didn’t know that something so wild and so easy to forage is so great for your health?
Now you do.
Pardon me as I geek out a little
But you’re going to want to know this, too. I know you, clever gentle reader, you.
Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) have been a folk remedy for centuries in North America, Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. The medicinal benefits of elderberries have been studied and rediscovered in many areas of the world as well. Elderberries are treasured for their antioxidant activity, and also are believed to help lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system, improve heart health and have been used to treat and prevent coughs, colds, flu, bacterial and viral infections. Most of these claims are based on folk remedies, though there have been studies done as well that have determined medicinal value of these berries.
So far elderberry research has revealed that bioflavonoids and other proteins in elderberry juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell. People with the flu who took elderberry juice in studies reported less severe symptoms and felt better much faster than those who did not.
There many good reasons why elderberry tonic is so popular among those who are proactive in keeping their families healthy. There are dozens of products you can buy, or you can get out there and pick your own elderberries and make your own!
Mountain Rose Herbs (affiliate link) is an excellent source if you’d like to order dried berries and make your own syrup. They have dried berries as well as many elderberry products. I trust that company completely, too, fyi.
Does it seem too amazing that a wild berry can enhance your immune system? That your homemade pancake syrup can kill viruses? That the elderberry jelly you slather on your morning toast can curb a winter flu bug?
More elderberry geekery:
- At the Bundesforschungsanstalt (and I did not just make that up) Research Center for Food in Karlsruhe, Germany, scientists conducting studies on elderberries found that their anthocyanins enhance immune function by boosting the production of cytokines. (These proteins act as messengers in the immune system to help regulate immune response, thus helping to defend the body against disease.) Anthocyanins are hot stuff today in nutrition, and that’s why blueberries and those new blue and purple tinged tomatoes are so trendy (rightly so, I must add).
- Studies at Austria’s University of Graz have found that elderberry extract reduces LDL cholesterol.
- Hasassah’s Oncology Lab in Israel has determined that elderberries stimulate the body’s immune system and so they are treating cancer and AIDS patients with it. The wide range of medical benefits (from flu and colds to debilitating asthma, diabetes, and weight loss) is probably due to the enhancement of each individual’s immune system.
- In 1899, an American sailor accidentally discovered that cheap port wine colored with elderberries relieved his arthritis. This may have been the basis for a number of experiments on the healing properties of this fruit (reference).
- Antiviral components of elderberry fruit extract were tested and found to effectively inhibit Human Influenza A (H1N1 virus) in vitro, possibly by blocking the ability of the virus to infect host cells. The extract was so effective, that researchers compared it with the prescription medications Amantadine and Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) (reference).
A Personal request of sweet farmer-types
Here in the Midwest, where elderberries and other beneficial foods grow like weeds, we are in danger of losing many of them, because of the practices of clearing shelter belts and mowing ditch areas. As the kids and I have searched for elderberries this fall, I’ve come to really appreciate the farmers who will leave some wild areas be. (Do you hear me, sweet neighbor farmers? Leave the wild stuff in the ditches–please!)
The temptation to trim and tidy up the ditches and the awkward, hard-to-farm areas on farmland must be intense (not to mention use every last bit of farmland for row crops). But by leaving them be, farmers are providing valuable forage foods for folks like us, not to mention birds and other wildlife.
The deer probably don’t fully appreciate all those antioxidants, but I sure do.
A few tips for foraging your own elderberries:
- Now’s the time to find them, in the Midwest, at least. Look for them in early to mid-August most years. You can clearly see the berry-laden bushes along the roadsides here in Nebraska. Elderberries don’t all ripen at once, so you will need to return to an area several times to harvest the berries as they ripen.
- Ask for permission, if you can locate the landowner. Every farmer–every single one–I’ve ever asked has shrugged and said “Sure, I don’t care, go for it.”
- Wear long pants and long sleeves and socks, and decent shoes! Elderberry-rich areas are also usually rich with poison ivy, nettles, thistles, chiggers, mosquitoes, and/or ticks. Also you may be climbing and slogging through tall grass, so leave the flip-flops at home.
- Spray your lower legs and feet for chiggers. Heed the advice of one who forgot one day and is still scratching (that. would. be. me.). 🙁
- You can use pruners to cut the bunches, but (after I forgot my pruners one time, I learned this) it’s easier to just break off the clumps of berries at the stem with your fingers. Then you don’t have to worry about losing your pruners either. 🙁 I break off the bunches and drop them in a cloth bag hanging from my arm. When the bag is full, I take it back to the car and grab another one.
- Speaking of losing things: if you’re on a serious elderberry foraging expedition, leave your favorite pair of sunglasses at home, and also secure your car keys (and cell phone, if you can’t leave it at home) someplace on your person, or better yet, leave them in the car. After a couple hours of foraging, when you discover that you dropped your ‘phone who knows where, you’ll wish you would have just left it someplace safe. Word to the wise, baby, word to the wise.
- Don’t overindulge on the fresh berries. Elderberries can be mildly toxic if eaten raw. The toxicity is cooked out of them. We all eat a few of them fresh, but if you eat many you could end up with a stomachache.
I sold my first picking of elderberries to one of my restaurant chefs, but I’m getting busy with the second picking. I’m planning to make elderberry kombucha, winter tonic (with elderberries and raw honey) and elderberry wine, if my time and the elderberries hold out that long. I’d also like to dry some for tea-making this winter. Oh, and I want to make elderberry syrup (pancakes!) and jelly (best toast ever!).
Better get busy at it! The days are getting shorter!
There really is treasure in the ditches
Please check back later this week for a post with a recipe for my Elderberry Fall and Winter Tonic.
Here’s to wild elderberries! 🙂 (*glass clink*)
p.s. Thanks to astute Gentle Reader and Nebraska farmer’s wife and friend Kay, I’m reminded to add this note: if you forage in ditches or along farm fields, be aware that there’s always a possibility that your berries might have been sprayed with pesticide and wash well! (Thanks Kay!)
- How to prune basil for the longest, most abundant harvest: truly a game changer!
- How to make an Elderberry Winter Tonic: your virus-fighting tool!