Back to Nature (Published on - Dec. 1, 2004)
Elderberries in paradise
By Karen Mitchell Tremmel

’Tis the season for cool moonlight walks, making freshly squeezed Florida orange juice, shopping for Christmas bargains, tending overrun gardens, getting out my Southern Living cookbooks and going berry picking.

When I was a young girl, my mother would send my brother and I out with a bucket to collect wild berries. With an ample lunch, to keep us from eating all the berries, we’d spend the day on the side of the mountain enjoying nature and picking berries. With red stained fingers we dreamed of elderberry jam and fritters for breakfast. Luscious elderberries hang ripe in bunches thick on undeveloped lands just waiting to please the palate as elderberry wine or elderberry jam.

Elder (Sambucus canadensis) is a fast growing shrub usually 3- to 13-feet tall rarely reaching tree size. It is often seen along fence rows and ditches, parks, undeveloped lands, floodplains or rich soil and stream banks. It is native from southeastern Canada to most of the United States except for the Great Basin and the Pacific Northwest. Elderberry wine and jelly are relished in many parts of the country.

The ripe fruit, usually purple-black, occurs in drooping bunches hanging from red stalks. These sweet juicy berries are traditionally gathered and made into elderberry wine, jam, syrup, and pies. The flowers also can be eaten.

Edible berries and flowers are used for medicine, dyes for basketry, arrow shafts, flute, whistles, clapper sticks, and folk medicine. Elderberry flowers, small, white, fragrant, in flat cymes, numerous, 0.15-0.25 inch in diameter clusters, contain flavenoids and rutin, which are known to improve immune function, particularly in combination with vitamin C.

Elderberries are also an important source of summer and fall food for a variety of mammals and birds, including turkeys, deer and more than 50 species of song birds. As birds and wild animals enjoy elderberries they help to distribute the seeds. Bears love to eat the elderberry fruits while deer, elk, and moose, squirrels and rodents browse on the stems and foliage.

The red berries of other elderberry species are toxic and should not be gathered. As with gathering any plant in the wild, if you’re unsure that you can identify a plant in the wild, seek the advice of a professionally trained botanist to verify the identification. Though wine is made from the fruits of some species, others, such as the Pacific red elder (Sambucus callicarpa) have inedible or even poisonous fruit. Fruits from related species that are red, unripe fruits, leaves and other parts of the plant may be dangerously purgative and should not be ingested. The active alkaloids in elderberry plants are hydrocyanic acid and sambucine. Both alkaloids will cause nausea so care should be observed with this plant.

Please note that for safety reasons DO NOT use the leaves, bark or roots of Elder for consumption as some reports claim these parts may be poisonous.

Elderberry can be confused with a violently toxic plant called water hemlock (Cicuta mexicana). These two plants are very similar, but cautious attention to detail can be used to separate their identities. Stems of water hemlock have purple stripes and when cut in half, reveal hollow piths. The elderberry stem has a uniform, white to light gray pith in cross section and the foliage has a rank, acrid odor when crushed. Elderberry leaves are oppositely arranged but water hemlock leaves are alternate. Both elderberry and water hemlock are pinnately compound. Both grow in moist or wet habitats. You must use caution when identifying these plants.

Avoid touching water hemlock!

(Source: University of Florida,, Nov. 29, 2004)

Here are some of my mother’s favorite recipes.

Basic elderberry wine
4 pounds elderberries
1 gallon of boiling water
3 pounds of granulated sugar

A claret yeast sachet
8 oz. chopped raisins
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 orange
1 vitamin B tablet
1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient

Strip the berries from the umbrellas into a suitably large primary fermentation vessel with a fork. Add 8 oz. chopped raisins, juice of the lemon, juice of the orange, a vitamin B tablet and a teaspoon of yeast nutrient. Add the boiling water and stir well. When cool enough to handle, squeeze fruit with hands to extract juice. Leave for one day to infuse. Add 2 1/2 lbs. sugar and activated yeast and leave covered for three days. Strain off liquid into demijohns, top up with another 1/4 lb. of sugar in each and, if necessary, with cooled boiled water. Leave to ferment in a warm (65 to 75 degrees), dark place. Rack off the lees into a clean demijohn when bubbling has subsided. Rack again six weeks later. Bottle in dark green bottles when wine is clear (I use a desk lamp to shine through from the other side) and there has been no activity for some time. Mature for at least six months before drinking.

Elderberry grape jelly
3 pounds elderberries
3 pounds half-ripe grapes
Sugar to taste

Wash elderberries. Remove stems. Cover with water. Cook until soft. Drain through jelly bag. Wash grapes. Remove stems. Cover with water, cook until soft. Drain through jelly bag. Combine elderberry and grape juice in equal proportions. Add about three-quarters cup sugar to each cup of juice. Boil rapidly until jelly sheets from spoon.

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