Elderberry

September 5, 2013 lawanda Magazine Columns

Elderberry is a mostly forgotten shrub, often considered a weed along roads and trail sides, ditches and hedgerows.  The abundance of other sweeter, larger berries in grocery stores and farmer’s markets has made them borderline obsolete.    But that’s just why they are special.  You won’t find fresh, frozen or canned elderberries for sale commercially.  If you want them, you have to forage for them yourself.

Once you can identify the elderberry shrub, you’ll be surprised at how common they are and you’ll see them everywhere in early summer when they bloom with big, white flower clusters, and again in late summer when the deep purple berries hang in heavy clusters.

Elderberry is a multi-stemmed 3–15 foot tall shrub with outwardly arching branches spreading about the same width as its height.  Bark is silver in color and smooth with raised lenticels.  Older stems become rough and shallowly furrowed.

After a few years of growth, older plants send out rhizomes, or underground roots, and form clonal clumps.  In the formal landscape of a city yard, this can become a problem.

Elderberry’s leaves look like oversized, toothed, willow leaves, dark green above and lighter underneath.  The individual white flowers are tiny, only 1/8” across, but are borne in large, umbrella-shaped clusters and have a light fragrance.

Fresh or dried elderflowers make a pleasant tasting, healthy tea.  Flower clusters can also be added to pancakes or muffins, or the entire cluster can be dipped in batter and fried.

Berries are only about ¼” in diameter, but are abundant.  The trick is to pick them as soon as you notice that they are deep purple and heavy enough to hang down, because by the next day, birds may have stripped the bush clean.

To harvest berries, cut the stems just above the berry clusters and let them fall into a bucket.  Berries can easily be removed from stems by “raking” the cluster with a kitchen fork.   An alternate method is to freeze the berries on the cluster and then shake them or run your hands over them to remove the berries from the stems.

Fresh elderberries are not very appetizing, so they are usually made into jelly or jam, baked into pies, or made into syrup, wine, brandy or schnapps.

CAUTION:  The only edible parts of the elderberry shrub are the white flower clusters and the ripe berries.  All other parts, including unripe berries, are poisonous.

ELDERBERRIES ARE GOOD FOR YOU!

They are high in Vitamins A and C, and are a good source of phosphorus and potassium.   Elderberry juice is anti-viral, anti-bacterial and antitussive (cough suppressive).  Sambucol, the popular over-the-counter cold and flu medicine, derives its name from the Latin name for elderberry Sambucus canadensis.

 FOLKLORE

  • Elder wood is said to have been used for Christ’s cross.
  • Some believed that if elder is seen a dream, illness is sure to follow.
  • Elder branches would ward off witches if gathered on the last day of April and laid in a home’s windows and doors, yet the growing plant was said to be attractive to witches, who gathered under it after dark.
  • In Denmark, it was believed that a spirit who lived in elderberry plants would haunt whoever cut it down.
  • In current fiction, the most powerful wand in Harry Potter’s Wizarding World is made of elder wood and is known as the “Elder Wand.”

 ELDERBERRY JELLY

3 pounds elderberries, stemmed and rinsed

Juice of 1 lemon (or about 2 T. bottled lemon juice)

1 box fruit pectin

4 1/2 c. sugar

Heat the elderberries over medium heat until the juice begins to boil and then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.  Strain the liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth for several hours or overnight.   Mix the elderberry juice with the lemon juice and add water to make three cups of fluid.  Add the pectin; bring the mixture to a boil and stir in the sugar.  Bring the jelly to a full boil again for one minute, then pour it into sterilized glasses and cover the jars with paraffin.  Makes three ½ pint jars.

ELDERBERRY PIE

Pastry for 2-crust pie

3 1/2 c. washed stemmed elderberries

1 T. vinegar or lemon juice

1 c. sugar

1/4 t. salt

1/3 c. flour

1 T. butter

Preheat oven to 400⁰.  Spread elderberries in pastry-lined 9-inch pie pan.  Sprinkle with lemon juice.  Combine sugar, salt and flour.  Sprinkle over berries.  Dot with butter.  Add top crust.  Use a fork to poke several holes in the top crust.  Bake 35 to 45 minutes.

ELDERBERRY TINCTURE – Make your own medicine!

1 lb. rinsed, stemmed elderberries

80-proof vodka

Put elderberries in a large cooking pot; add ¼- ½ cup water.  Bring to a boil.  Turn off heat and let cool in cooking pot.  Mash berries slightly.  Ladle into clean quart canning jars, about ¾ full.  Top off the jars with vodka.  (The alcohol extracts the medicinal properties of the berries.)  Cap and label the jars with the date.  Place in a dark cabinet for a month, shaking the jar every day or two.  Strain the liquid and store it in dark bottles.  Take 1 teaspoonful in a little water three or four times a day at the first sign of cold or flu.  The tincture should maintain its potency for two years.

 

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