Sambucus Canadensis: The American Elderberry

May 31, 2018

By Nick Wersel

The beautiful blossoms of the American Elderberry are commonly used to make wine, syrup, and flavored water. —Joan Simon

Few experiences are like first discovering the plethora and diversity of wild foods that grow just outside our doors, right here in our urban landscape. Awareness of the plants, fungi, and animals that sustained humans long before the corner grocery store ever existed gives us a deeper understanding of our place in the ecosystem and a way to observe the seasons shifting. For me, watching leafy greens, vegetables, mushrooms, and fruits growing naturally without human intervention feels like getting to understand a calendar of exotic seasonal foods. The American elderberry is a great example of one of the delicacies that surrounds us, but that few have ever noticed.

Black elderberries are prized for their flavor and medicinal qualities. —H. Zell

The species of black elder native to North America is Sambucus canadensis. Its native range extends across the Eastern half of the United States and into Southeastern parts of Canada. There is an almost identical version in Europe called Sambucus nigra. The two can and are used interchangeably in the kitchen.

A large bush with dense foliage, the elder produces large umbels of flowers that mature into rich, dark berries. In Wisconsin, they are commonplace and typically grow along waterways and lakes, but also are frequently found in woodland and prairie areas. 

There are several domestic cultivars of this plant that are available at nurseries, but once you find a productive plant in the wild, it is just as easy to snip a few branches and grow your own bushes from these cuttings at home!

The American Elderberry produces a bush of thick foliage that is used by some homeowners to create a natural, fruit-bearing privacy screen. Pollen foragers and birds are attracted to the elderberry’s flowers and fruit. R.A. Nonenmacher

At least two genetically distinct plants must be grown within about 60 feet of each other for proper pollination. This is usually the case in the wild, where the plants often grow in clusters. Naturally occurring plants that grow from seed are by nature genetically unique, unlike domestic “cultivars,” which are all clones of the same parent plant. This is why two domestic cultivars are necessary for pollination, whereas wild plants are already sufficiently genetically diverse to breed with each other. The berries are a favorite food of many birds and wherever these birds drop the seeds, new plants sprout. So in addition to being of great food value, they are also a great plant to grow for the purpose of attracting birds and pollinators to your home.

Sambucus canadensis, the American Elderberry, has long been revered for the many uses of its blossoms and purple berries.

Properly identifying this plant is a must if you are new the elderberry and want to harvest from wild bushes. All elderberries grow as a bush with woody branches, gray bark, and a pithy core. Members of the carrot family, Apiaceae, also produce white flower umbels, but some of these carrot relatives are extremely toxic, such as the water hemlock, which is regarded as one of the most toxic plants in North America. So learn the difference. Have someone with proper expertise show you what each looks like. You will see the difference and then you will readily be able to identify the elderberry plant.

Neither the flowers of berries of Sambucus racemosa are safe for human ingestion.

In addition to having toxic look-alikes, it must be noted that the elderberry plant itself is largely toxic. Leaves, bark, roots, stems, and even unripe berries contain harmful levels of toxins including some cyanogenic glycosides and toxic alkaloids. These toxins most frequently cause gastric upset and related symptoms. Even ripe fruits contain some of these compounds, which is why it is recommended that all elderberries should be cooked before consumption to break down these chemicals. 

There is another a variety of elderberry native to our area that has red berries, Sambucus racemosa. Unlike black elderberries, red elderberries are of questionable edibility because the berries can contain more of the elder’s toxins and may cause stomach upset and irritation. There is conflicting information about this plant, as noted on the Minnesota Wildflowers website, so it is best to stay away from red-berried elders. Another identifying feature of this species is that its flowers and berries grow in elongated racemes, not flat umbels, hence its scientific name.

Harvesting flowers and berries

When you have become learned as to what the plant looks like, you may wish to locate some and then remember where they are so you can return in late summer to harvest the berries. If you are planning to harvest elderberries in the wild, find the plants in early summer for it is the easiest time to find them.

The plants are characterized by their gray-orange bark, distinct leaf shape, and their signature cream-colored umbels of flowers. The small blossoms emit a soft complex scent and are easy to spot when walking, biking, or driving. 

These native floral delicacies are equally as useful in the kitchen as the berries. The branches of the elder are brittle and very prone to breakage from windstorms or even from their own weight. For this reason, be careful not to damage the plant, while you are harvesting, to avoid reducing the eventual berry yield. When harvesting flowers, select clusters on low or weak branches that may break off later in the season under the weight of the clusters of fruit. Keep in mind while you are collecting, that flowers removed, are berries that will never form. If you want lots of elderberries a few months later, leave plenty of flowers on the bush.

 

The elderflower is a highly versatile in its culinary applications. Gastronomic creations ranging from fritters, syrups, pies, and tarts to juice blends, liqueurs, and wines, can be made with this abundant and largely unused food. Try dipping a whole flower head in sweetened batter and pan fry, and then enjoy the flowers by eating them straight from their stems.

St. Germaine is a popular and delicious liqueur made with elderflower and lemon that pales, quite literally, in comparison to its homemade counterpart. Possibly the most versatile way to use these early summer blooms is to make a syrup that you can then incorporate into many other recipes. To make about a quart of elderflower syrup, simply collect 2 cups of blossoms and cut them from their stems. Place these flowers in one quart of boiling water, turn the heat off, and steep for several hours, or even overnight if you feel like being thorough. Strain the juice from the flowers and add the juice of two lemons and four cups of sugar. Return to the heat to dissolve the sugar. You can cool it and use right away or process it in a hot water bath or pressure canner for long-term storage, following directions from a reputable source. A good rule of thumb is to make enough syrup to use immediately and to have on hand later in the year. Use this syrup in cocktails, pies, cakes, quick breads, on top of pancakes, or in summertime classic, elderflower lemonade.

When berry-picking time arrives, it is easy to know that they are ripe because the birds will have already eaten so many of them. The trick is to watch them ripen and get there first! 

My advice is to make regular trips to observe the elderberry bushes from the time their flowers drop and the fruit begins to form. The berries will be green at first and go through shades of purple to a deep, nearly black color. Select the clusters that have these very dark, almost black berries. Larger berries tend to contain more sugars and are less astringent. When the berries are ripe, the branches will be bending and drooping under the weight of the ripe fruit. An effective way to harvest them is to use a scissors or pruner and some sort of pole for drawing tall berry clusters within your reach. Cut the whole cluster and let it fall into a bucket, basket, bag, or other container. 

You can separate berries from stems in a later phase of processing them. If you leave the clusters that are out of your reach for the local wildlife, you will still easily be able to collect enough berries from one to five bushes for almost any home-scale use.

Once you have harvested the heavy, drooping clusters of purple-black berries, they are ready to be processed. Start by removing the berries, using your fingers to roll them off the stems, or a scissors to cut as close to the fruit as possible. Either way, expect to have purple fingers for at least a few days.

Unlike black elderberries, red elderberries are of questionable edibility because the berries can contain more of the elder’s toxins and may cause stomach upset and irritation. —Walter Sigmund

After much toil, you should have a large pile of the globular berries ready for their intended use. If you cannot process them at this point, the berries can be stored in your freezer in plastic zipper or vacuum-sealed bags. When you decide to put your berries to use, you have many delicious choices.

One is to make jam. Take the fresh (or frozen) berries, weigh them, and toss them into a pot of an appropriate size. Add an equal amount of sugar, by weight, and enough pectin for your batch size. Boil this mixture, stirring occasionally, to a temperature of 220°F. If you prefer a seedless jam, prior to adding your pectin, put the fruit and sugar mixture through a food mill to separate the solids and then boil to the correct temperature. Follow the directions from a reputable source to preserve the jam using a hot water bath or pressure cooker method and you’ll have jam to until the following year’s harvest time. Realistically speaking, however, the jam you make has very little chance of ever lasting anywhere near a year!

With just a little more patience, you can make wine. Crush your berries and introduce them to a mixture of water, sugar, lemon peel, and any number of other flavoring ingredients along with your favorite strain of brewing yeast to make elderberry wine. There are myriad recipes for elderberry wine and they vary greatly, so find a recipe that reflects your flavor preferences. After several months of fermenting, clarifying, bottling, and aging, the final product will convince you to do the same during the elderberry harvest for years to come.

The cream-colored, fragrant flowers that open in umbrella-like clusters are a harbinger of summer and in August the branches bow with the purple-black berries to signal the beginning of the harvest season.

The American elderberry has long had a place in local, regional, and global history. Its unique set of flavors fell from popularity with the past few generations but is once more gaining appreciation and even renown.

Along with the growing awareness of the planet’s ecosystem is a renewed interest in nature’s bountiful, edible landscapes, and the interdependency of our own species with animals, insects, and microorganisms.

Come June when the bushes are in blossom, there will be foragers will full baskets and empty stomachs, celebrating the elderberry, one of our native jewels.

Info about the Red-Berried Elder: minnesotawildflowers.info/shrub/red-berried-elder

Info about Elder toxicity and how to neutralize it:
Compoudchem.com/2016/05/31/elderflower-elderberry/

Nick Wersel is a local foraging, cooking, preserving, winemaking, gardening, and nature enthusiast working to connect the public to its natural landscape. Originally from Pewaukee, Nick is a self-employed tile craftsman, when he isn’t wandering Southeast Wisconsin’s green­spaces in search of unique flavors. His endeavor to involve others in foraging and related group activities can be followed on his Facebook page, Myco MKE: https://goo.gl/8AbmUr 

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