“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” -French Guy in Castle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
For a long time, that was about all the exposure I had to elderberries. But recently, my sister’s boyfriend has been searching for wild elderberries to forage in order to make some elderberry infused hard cider. I have come across many berries foraging, but until recently I only picked the obviously edible ones: blackberries, raspberries, grapes, and bunchberries. Now that I have properly identified them, I know I have seen elderberries, or the American Elder, many times before.
This is sort of how the progression of foraging has worked for me. In the beginning, everything just looked green. Grass, shrub, brush, tree. But then as I reviewed my foraging books I realized that in one square foot there might be 15 different plants, where as before it just all looked like grass. Foraging is tedious in the beginning, because you must review the plants you are after, and then consult the book every time you spot something that looks familiar. And then most of the time, it is not in fact what you are looking for. The time is not wasted since now you know to pass by the plant, but it can be disappointing to spend 10 minutes trying to identify something you are hoping to eat, only to realize it is not edible.
But after this process is repeated many times, certain plants can be noticed everywhere! It is just a matter of continuously reviewing the plants in the books, and consulting the books every time you think you find an edible plant in the field. The frequency of being correct when spotting what you think is a wild edible increases as your knowledge increases, and then foraging becomes more fun.
So that is where I felt I was with berries. I had a lot of the green stuff down: everywhere I go I now see common plantain, japanese knot-wood, purslane, lady’s thumb, burdock, etc. But when I would see berries in the field all I saw was: red berries, purple berries, large berries, small berries, hard berries, etc. After Sunday’s little foraging adventure however, I feel more comfortable with certain berries, which will undoubtedly propel future identifications, since I have some references in my head to either quickly rule certain ones out, or recognize them.
I identified chokecherries and elderberries while ruling out the edibility of a shiny bunchy blue berry, and smaller, less juicy red berries. I also laid the groundwork of identification so that hopefully next time around I can make sure what I saw were in fact not-quite-ripe hawthorns. I left the chokecherries alone; while edible they contain poisonous pits with hydrocyanic acid. But I gathered almost a full ziplock sandwich bag full of elderberries, and will probably return for more. Then I froze them, and will be giving them to my sister and her boyfriend as to better use them for important homemade products: various alcohols.
The two pictures I took and posted here were actually some of the more sparsely berried plants I found. Elderberries can form significantly larger bunches that “umbrella” out at the end. Elderberries do NOT grow from one hanging stem like black cherries and the poisonous pokeweed.
But it turns out wine and jam are not the only things great about elderberries. For hundreds—possibly thousands—of years, elderberries, elder flowers, and even the leaves have been reputed to have magical and or healing properties. Since sickness was sometimes blamed on black magic back in the day, I think the healing properties of elderberry are one and the same with the magical properties. Or maybe there is more than meets the eye. Elderberry bushes are said to cause visions of fairies and elves if you sit under one on a midsummer night. I hear these sightings are even more vivid if earlier in the day you ate certain foraged mushrooms. 😉
But according to The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke, elderberries can be used to help against flu, cough, and colds, as well as improve immune system function. Also, according to this website, elderberries are one of the highest anti-oxidant containing fruits, which is why they would help to improve immune function, and ward off colds and flu.
Elderberry fruits are an excellent source of anthocyanins, vitamins A and C and a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6 (Table 1). They also contain sterols, tannins, and essential oils (Anon. 2005) and can readily be considered a healthy food…
In folk medicine, elder berries have been used for their diaphoretic, laxative and diuretic properties (Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005; Merica et al. 2006) and to treat various illnesses such as stomach ache, sinus conges- tion, constipation, diarrhea, sore throat, common cold, and rheumatism (Novelli 2003; Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005). The flowers are said to have diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, diuretic, and topical anti-inflammatory actions (Merica et al. 2006). Some of these properties seem justified since elderberry fruits contain tannins and viburnic acid, both known to have a positive effect on diarrhea, nasal congestion, and to improve respiration (Novelli 2003). Leaves and inner bark have also been used for their purgative, emetic, diuretic, laxative, topical emollient, expectorant, and diaphoretic action (Merica et al. 2006).
I’ll be sure to update you all on how great I feel after sampling some of the hard cider and wine made from my foraged elderberries!