After harvesting Elderflowers earlier this Spring, I’ve been keeping a close eye on those same Elder trees growing nearby, eagerly watching the round berries appear, soften, and darken. There’s one tree in particular that gets lots of sunlight, so it has ripened a lot faster than I expected. I was able to fill my basket full of berries and bring them home for preserving the other day. Elderberry season is truly upon us now, in all its warm, ancient glory.
Elder is one of the oldest herbs in traditional use, dating back to the ancient Greeks, and has a rich folklore wrapped around it, full of magic and wonder. Interestingly, however unlikely, there is even a legend that the very cross that Christ Jesus was crucified on was made of an Elder tree. The Celts in particular had a traditional association of Elder with intuitive wisdom, feminine strength, a symbol of protection, and deep healing. All those times and traditions may seem far away from our busy, modern lives today, but we can practice a distinct level of appreciation for the use of Elder throughout time, its traditional use being carried across generations, into the very present as we humbly thank God for this gift of healing and support to our health and wellness. We can gather it up in baskets, bringing it home to preserve and use in the cold, wintery months ahead of us. I very much enjoyed writing up this guide to properly identifying such a special plant, and how to harvest and store its precious, highly useful berries for future use. I hope it’s helpful to you, if you think you may have spotted some Elderberries nearby, but aren’t quite sure!
Towards the middle to end of Summer, berries of many different kinds can be sighted darkening the branches of trees and bushes all around. It’s of the utmost importance to correctly identify the plants in question before consuming their fruit though, as there are several lookalikes for Elderberry that can make one quite ill or can even be deadly. However, once you learn a few things to look for, Elder is easy enough to recognize and you can enjoy its fruit with confidence. Black Elder, Sambucus nigra, is safe for consumption, however some other species of Elder are toxic.
Also an important safety note: parts of the Elder tree (bark, leaves, roots, seeds, and unripened berries) contain hydrocyanic acid, which is toxic when consumed. Only Elderflowers, which arrive earlier in the season and then transform and ripen into Elderberries, are safe for consumption. I’ll do a post later on just Elderflowers alone, which arrive in Springtime. For now we will focus on Elderberries though, since they are presently in season.
It’s important to distinguish that Elderberries themselves are perfectly safe to eat, as long as they are cooked well (about 30 minutes), or, if no heat is involved, as long as the seeds are strained out… for example, once finishing off a tincture or honey preparation, then straining off the finished product. The seeds are the tricky part here. Either cooking or straining must be involved before consuming Elderberries. Though I should mention that many people are able to eat a few raw berries here and there with no negative side effects. Just keep all of this in mind, especially if you are around young children or pets.
Elder is a tree, but sometimes appears as more of a bush or shrub, with branches clustered at the ground growing up and outwards, from 10 to 30 feet tall. It is also not a vine, unlike some similar looking, but highly toxic plants. It is native to Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia, but is also naturalized in North America. It is known to love growing near watery areas: rivers, creeks, and wetlands. But it is also often found growing around the edges of farms, fields, forests, and alongside roads across much of the world.
Another way of identifying Elder is by its bark. Other look alike plants such as the poisonous Water Hemlock (confused by its similar flowers to Elder) won’t have any woody bark. Elder is a tree, and is covered in bark on its trunk and branches. Elder should also not have any thorns. If you find thorns on it, it’s most likely Hercules Club, which is also poisonous. The bark of Elder also has a unique feature of warty bumps across its surface. Looking at the bark is one of the easiest ways to properly identify Elder.
Elder’s leaves are compound, presenting in groups of either 5-11 oblong to lance shaped leaflets with serrated edges, growing opposite of each other on the stem. They are usually about 2-4 inches long, and are a rich, dark green colour.
The berries are dark purple to black, with glossy skin, growing on gently rounded or even flattened clusters branching outwards and hanging in heavy drooping bunches. If you find a plant with berries hanging in long finger-like shapes, you’ve likely found Pokeberry, which is poisonous. So pay careful attention to the shape the berries grow in and hang by! They appear and ripen fully from mid-July through to the end of September, depending on location. It’s important to not pick or consume green or unripened berries, as they are toxic, though a couple slightly reddish ones here and there won’t harm you. Wait until the clusters are heavy and fully darkened to purple or black over all. But don’t wait too long, as our feathered friends are quick to find Elderberries once ripened. Birds can devour them all in the course of a single day!
After correctly identifying Elder, it’s easiest to simply cut the complete cluster off with a pair of scissors like in the photo above, rather than trying to harvest the berries individually. Collect the clusters of berries in a basket together, and head home- But before doing so, I personally like to take a moment to pause in reflection and gratitude underneath the branches of the Elder tree, thanking God for this growing, vibrant blessing, one that will support our health and give strength, especially in the Winter months to come.
Elderberry is an extremely popular herb in traditional healing. It is a rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, and is a potent antiviral and immune stimulant. It assists the body in combating colds, flu, and respiratory infections, and in shortening the duration of sickness. It is also well known for preventing sickness in the first place too, often taken daily during the colder, darker days of winter. Some of the best ways to use Elderberry is in tincture or syrup form, or blended in a fusion of those two methods, lovingly called: Elderberry Elixir. It can also even be cooked with and prepared in foods as well… Pies, jams, wine, and more!
If you’re so blessed as to have a particularly large harvest of Elderberries, I suggest placing them all in a clean bathtub for a good rinse down. It’s helpful to have the larger space for a larger volume of berries. Either way, make sure to thoroughly rinse off the Elderberries, washing away any dirt and bugs that may have come along for a ride.
Once rinsed, remove the Elderberries from their stems. It’s essential to remove all of the stems, since they contain the toxic compounds mentioned above and should not be consumed. Removing the berries can be done by hand, but sometimes I like to “comb” them off using a fork, as shown in the photo below, since this can sometimes speed up the process. Be sure to check for any green or red berries and discard them since they aren’t fully ripe and are also not safe for consuming.
If you’re not using your Elderberries right away, there are a few common methods of preserving them for later use. Since they are such a moist fruit upon harvesting, they require a good amount of time to fully dry. This can be achieved a few different ways.
Air drying: Lay the berries on a perforated surface, such as a screen or woven cloth. Something that allows good airflow around the berries so that they can dry out completely. Place this in an area of the house away from sunlight and moisture. Keep the berries in a single layer, otherwise moisture may become trapped around them and contribute to mold growth. Elderberries could take several days to dry completely, so keep an eye on them, checking them and shifting them around each day for maximum airflow. Once finished, store in a glass container away from heat and sunlight, until later use.
Oven drying: Place the berries onto a baking sheet and put into the oven on the lowest heat setting, with the door propped open for a few hours. This method takes a careful eye to ensure that the berries aren’t actually cooking, but simply being warmed a bit just to speed up the drying out process. This is basically a makeshift dehydrator. If you happen to have one of those, then your job is much easier here! Either way, keep an eye on the berries, checking on them to see when they have begun drying out, and transfer to a perforated surface to finish air drying if necessary. Once finished, store in a glass container away from heat and sunlight, until later use.
Freezing: One of my preferred methods of preserving Elderberries though is to simply freeze them. Once they are rinsed and de-stemmed, place them in a jar or bag and freezing them. It’s a simple and quick method, if you have the extra freezer space. Also, measuring the berries out beforehand and marking the container with that information is especially helpful, so you can thaw out exactly what you need in the future. So easy.
I hope it’s been enjoyable reading this educational post on how to properly identify, harvest, and store such a powerful plant. Elder is fairly easy to find, and highly useful. A wonderful herb to have in any home apothecary. I hope you find some Elder trees nearby and have the blessing of harvesting some berries to bring home!
Head back to the Herbalism page for more ways to study herbs and their properties, actions, preparations, and traditional use in day-to-day living.
- “Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification” – Thomas J. Elpel
- “The Healing Power of Celtic Plants” – Angela Paine
- “The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland” – Tess Darwin
- “An Illustrated Guide to Herbs: Their Medicine and Magic” – Anna Kruger
- “National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs: The World’s Most Effective Healing Plants” –
- “Elderberry: The Definitive Guide – Sunflower Press”
- “A Modern Herbal” – M. Grieve
DISCLAIMER: Any information offered here is for educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Leaves in My Hair makes neither medical claim, nor intends to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. You must do your own independent research concerning the safety and usage of any herbs and for making any decisions regarding your health. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, persons with known medical conditions, and those on medication should consult with their licensed health care provider about any medical decisions. References to external websites and resources are for informational purposes only. Leaves in my Hair neither endorses them nor is in any way responsible for their content.