lt’s been a lot time since my last post. I’ll try to get up to date before the next foraging season starts up. Today, we look at elderberries, an indigenous fruit that grows in dense enough thickets that, once you find a patch, it’s easy to collect berries by the bushel.
Elderberries, like so many other wild foods, favor “fringe” areas at the edge of forests. It’s often growing in the same places you’ll find raspberries, day lilies, and so on. The easiest time to find it is when it’s blooming–it’s big, white, compound flowers are easy to pick out in early summer. They’re composed of dozens of little flowers, all in a relatively flat plane, sometimes up to a foot across. The bushes measure about 8-12′ high, and have compound leaves, a little like sumac or walnut. If the fruit is ready (late August/early Spetember) look for the fruit–bunches of pea-sized black berries, arranged like the flowers in a 6″ to 12″ wide flat clusters. The stems of these bunches have a distinctive red color–once you know the shade, you can usually recognize it from some distance. I found my most reliable patch while driving along the highway.
When harvesting, pick elderberries by the cluster, rather than picking individual berries. The stems act as a cushion, so you can really pile up the harvest. This makes picking elderberries a lot easier than raspberries, blueberries, or other, more delicate fruit.
Although they can be eaten out-of-hand, elderberries are not typically eaten fresh. Euell Gibbons, in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, suggested they be dried, like raisins, and used in baked goods, so I tried that.
Initially, I pulled the berries off the stalks (a tedious, hand-staining activity) and laid them out in a solar dryer. After several days in the sun, they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I put them in a food dehydrator. They quickly shriveled up into hard, inedible little nuggets. I may have missed the “sweet spot” in the dehydration process–I’ve never made raisins or anything like that in the dehydrator. I threw the results out onto the driveway, and even the birds wouldn’t touch them.
Next time, I’m going to go for elderberry juice. If I’m understanding the directions correctly, I believe I can run them through a press without going through the laborious process of removing the berries from the stems. Once the juice is made, it can be mixed with other juices or fermented into elderberry wine.
The few berries I ate out-of-hand were not delicious but not objectionable. They were a little less sweet than mulberries, but okay. If I were hungry, I’d enjoy them. As for elderberry juice/wine/jelly/etc., I’ll try that next time around and report with a comment on this entry.