Well, the season is now upon us… what season, do you ask? Elderberry season! This extremely important wild edible and medicinal plant starts getting ripe berries any time from July to September, depending on your specific location and elevation. Here in southern Oregon elderberries are perfect from mid August to early September. Before the berries, however, come the flowers, which are an amazing treat in and of themselves. Let’s go foraging for elderberries and elderflowers!
If you want to learn more about the edible and medicinal weeds that surround us and how to use them, check out my eBook: Wildcrafting Weeds: 20 Easy to Forage Edible and Medicinal Plants (that might be growing in your backyard)!
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Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) Varieties
There are three main types of elder: black elder (Sambucus nigra), blue elder (Sambucus nigra subsp. cerulea), and red elder (Sambucus racemosa).
The focus of this article will be foraging for blue and black elderflower and elderberry, as they are the two that are most commonly foraged and used.
Red elder is found across North America, but produces berries which are highly toxic if eaten raw. Red elderberries must be cooked prior to eating.
Where and When to Find Elder
Elder species grow all over the world, but are most bountiful in the Northern Hemisphere.
Black elder (Sambucus nigra) is native to Europe but has migrated to the eastern half of North America.
American Black elder (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis) is native to eastern North America and is very closely related to black elder.
Blue elder (Sambucus nigra subsp. cerulea) which is another subspecies of black elder, is native to western North America and naturally occurs west of the Rocky Mountains.
Elder shrubs are commonly found growing wild in disturbed areas, along roadsides, hedgerows, and in areas that have been recently burned.
When to find elderflower
Elderflowers, which bloom on the shrubs before the berries form, make their first appearance in early springtime and will continue to bloom through July.
Blooming time depends on climate and elevation, with warmer climates seeing flowers as early as March or April and cooler climates not seeing flowers until July.
In southern Oregon elderflowers bloom in late May through June.
When to find elderberry
While partially dependent on climate and where you’re geographically situated, elderberries are typically ready to harvest from July through September. Ours are typically ready by mid-August.
Elders are medium to large shrubs with multiple branching systems that can potentially grow to the size of a small tree.
The leaves are opposite, compound, and serrated across all species, a trait that is common across all species which makes elders fairly easy to identify.
Elderflowers are a creamy white color and grow in clusters.
These clusters are large and flat (umbel shaped) and each cluster is made up of many tiny flowers. Red elders have cone shaped flowers.
Each individual bloom has five petals and an abundance of yellow pollen on the stamen.
Black elderberries range in color from dark purple to black and grow in clusters on reddish stems.
Blue elderberries are a deep blue color and are coated in a white bloom of yeast when they’re ripe. This bloomy layer makes it easy to differentiate blue elderberries from black elderberries.
Red elders have bright red berries that grow in a cone-like shape.
As with any type of foraging, always get permission to harvest elders before taking any of the flowers or berries.
If I’m foraging on a friend or neighbor’s property, I like to show my appreciation by dropping off a gift made from whatever I harvested.
When harvesting elderflowers look for fresh flowers that are fully opened but haven’t begun to brown yet.
Flowering elders are almost impossible to miss, the gorgeous blooms truly make the shrub stand out!
Never take more than 20 to 30 percent of the flowers on any given elder plant as the flowers will eventually become berries.
You can dry elderflowers using a flower drying screen or by hanging the bunches upside down.
Blue and black elderberries should always be harvested when they’re completely ripe as unripe berries are toxic. Be aware that elderberry stems and leaves are also toxic and should not be consumed at all.
Freeze whole clusters of elderberries on a large baking sheet in a single layer to make it easier to remove the berries from the stem.
Elderberries can also be hung up to dry or spread out on a drying screen for later use.
Depending on whether you’re harvesting elderflowers or elderberries, there are a couple of look-alikes you should be aware of when you’re out foraging.
I always recommend getting a foraging guidebook to help you properly identify plants.
Elderflowers can potentially be mistaken for poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) despite having only a passing resemblance.
Elder shrubs are much larger than poison hemlock, and the blooms on poison hemlock are a true umbel shape with purple spots on the stems.
Take a look at my in-depth guide to identifying poison hemlock if you have any concerns about confusing the two plants while foraging.
When foraging for elderberries, there are two look-alikes to keep in mind.
The first look-alike is called pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), a plant that produces larger berries that hang in a long cylinder.
Pokeweed is highly toxic and is reported to have a highly unpleasant taste — make sure you steer clear of these berries.
The second look-alike plant is called devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa); these berries are similar in appearance to elderberries, but the main stem has large thorns.
Unlike pokeweed, the berries on devil’s walking stick are only mildly toxic, but still not something you’d want to consume.
Edible Uses of Elder
Black and blue elderflowers and elderberries are both edible and have a wide array of culinary uses.
It’s important to remember that elder stems, leaves, and unripe berries are toxic and should not be consumed.
Black and blue elderberries sometimes have a small amount of toxicity when consumed raw, mainly in the seeds, which can cause stomach upset in some people.
Edible uses of elderflower
Elderflowers are a rich source of nutrients, especially essential fatty acids. To prepare elderflowers for eating, remove the flowers from the stem before using.
Elderflowers are a natural fit for beverages such as tea, lemonade, liqueur, cordial, or kombucha.
When I have an abundance of elderflowers I love to make this sparkling elderflower mead (you can also use the flowers when brewing wine and champagne).
Elderflower fritters are a simple yet elegant way to enjoy the fruits of your foraging endeavors, simply dip the blooms in crepe batter (or follow this recipe for elderflower fritters) and fry until golden and crispy.
Looking for more edible elderflower inspiration? I’ve put together a list of 20+ elderflower recipes for you to try the next time you’re flush with these versatile blooms!
Edible uses of elderberry
Elderberries are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, dietary fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
Blue and black elderberries can be eaten raw, however some people find that uncooked elderberries cause an upset stomach (red elderberries must be cooked before being ingested).
The white bloom that forms on blue elderberries can also be used to make your own wild yeast starter.
See my post with 70+ Elderberry Recipes to get more ideas!
Medicinal Uses of Elder
Elderflowers and elderberries are both recognized for their potent immune-boosting antiviral properties — as well as having unique healing properties of their own.
Medicinal uses of elderflower
Elderflower is a popular ingredient in skin creams and salves, and with good reason!
The flowers are well-known for their calming characteristics, especially on itchy or irritated skin (I love to use them when I’m making herbal salves for personal use or gift giving).
You can also make a fever-reducing elderflower tea, which induces sweating to lower body temperature.
Medicinal uses of elderberry
You might think that when it comes to elderberries it’s impossible to have too much of a good thing, but I don’t recommend consuming elderberries all winter long when you aren’t experiencing any cold and flu symptoms.
Elderberries can actually overstimulate the immune system, which means your ability to naturally ward off cold and flu symptoms might become compromised.
Generally speaking, elderberries aren’t suitable for individuals who have issues with their immune system — it’s always important to do your research before ingesting any kind of remedy, natural or otherwise.
Grow Your Own or Buy Elderberries
Elderberry is such a great plant to have around for so many different reasons. It’s easy to identify and usually grows prolifically.
We grow elderberry from root cuttings right in our backyard!
For its medicinal uses alone it’s a plant I wouldn’t want to be without, but then you factor in its edible berries and its wine making abilities and now I want tons of them!
Luckily elderberries are easy to forage and grow.
If you can’t find any elderberries, or if it’s the wrong season, you can always buy dried elderberries or elderflowers from Mountain Rose Herbs (my favorite place to buy high quality, organic dried herbs).
Time to start foraging for elderberries and elderflowers!