Greetings and Happy Fall, fellow nature lovers!
Crisp October wind rattles through the bushes and trees on this fine day. In the distance, I hear the sweet companion calls of Kinglets amongst the brush, and the loud tap, tap, tap of a Pileated Woodpecker’s beak on a snag. Although Fall is officially here and blustery days like these in the Pacific Northwest have a beauty and charm of their own, my thoughts bring me back to a recent memory from just a few weeks ago. It was a day when the weather was quite a bit warmer and sunnier, and the extended summer that is common here in September felt like it was truly lingering on and on. . .
In honor of the anniversary of our wedding day two years ago, Pat and I took an exciting adventure to drier elevations this past Sept 20th, just two days before the Autumnal Equinox. Our sights were set on a wilderness area just outside of Leavenworth, WA, a quaint Bavarian-inspired mountain town tucked into the eastern slope of the Northern Cascades. Our intention was not only to celebrate our anniversary and the official end of summer by visiting this beautiful wild landscape, but we also had another mission in mind: to harvest as many Blue Elderberries as possible!!
Now, why were we so very excited about harvesting some wild berries?? Well first, here is little background about this plant. Blue Elder (Sambucus cerulea) is a lovely shrub that can grow to be quite tall, up to 30 feet in height in favorable conditions. It seems to favor growing in sunny spots alongside rivers and creeks. Blue Elder is common to the drier eastern slopes of the Cascades, I have yet to encounter the species in western Washington. It is a member of the Honeysuckle Family so it’s one of the few shrubs and trees that have opposite branching (as opposed to alternate). Each leaf branch is composed of 5-9 serrated lanceolate leaflets. In the spring, it bears clusters of gentle white flowers which can be used to make a delicious cordial. By late summer and early Fall, the flowers have transformed into tasty, nutritious, and medicinal dark blue berries!
Before we dive into the details of our Blue Elderberry adventure, let me first acknowledge that Blue Elder should not be confused with its relative Red Elder (Sambucus racemosa), which grows abundantly throughout the moist forests to the west of the Cascades (our home sweet home!) The berries of the Red Elder, though beautiful to look at and edible when cooked, are not nearly as culinarily appealing or as palatable as the berries of the Blue Elder. They are actually quite bitter. Truth be told, they are more like a “survival food”. You could cook them and eat them if you absolutely had no other alternative, but most modern-day folks don’t really go out of their way to harvest them. However, if you do feel called to experiment with Red Elderberries, feel free to let me know how it goes! They might taste decent with lots of sweetener added. Just be sure to cook them first, as eating them raw may cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Also, avoid consuming the seeds as they are toxic!
There is also another species of Sambucus, known as Black Elder (Sambucus nigra), which bears black berries that are used in a similar fashion as the berries of the Blue Elder to make medicinal syrup. I have yet to encounter this species, but based on my research it also likes to grow east of the mountains just as Blue Elder does, though it can occasionally can be found in western Washington.
Anyway, back to those tasty berries of the BLUE Elder. Not only are they delicious when used to make pies, jams, syrups, and wines, but they are also nourishing and medicinal. They have been used for healing purposes for thousands of years. Rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, consuming Blue Elderberries naturally boosts the immune system. Studies have shown that Elderberries’ anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties have proven to be effective in treating and preventing colds and flu. Perhaps you may have noticed the plethora of Elderberry syrups, cough drops, lozenges, and gummies that fill the “Cold and Flu” aisle of your local natural foods store. In fact, you can even spot these products at big box stores like Walgreens and Target these days. Why is this stuff sold practically everywhere?? Because it works!!
Well, Pat and I, being the ethnobotanically enthusiastic nature geeks that we are, prefer to go straight to the source rather than buying these products. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against purchasing Elderberry syrup made by reputable companies from my local co-op, and I certainly would not hesitate to do so when I am in pinch (like last winter when we lived in Colorado and did not have access to wild Blue Elderberries!). However, I much prefer to make my own Elderberry syrup (and make 20 extra bottles or so to give as Christmas gifts to friends and family!). I absolutely adore foraging for wild edible and medicinal plants, and I take advantage of any opportunity to go on an adventure whenever I can (especially with people that I love!). Foraging is such a powerful sensory experience that truly uplifts my spirit, deepens my connection to the natural world, and makes me feel truly alive. Plus, I never know what else I’m going to come across while on a foraging adventure! Pat and I have definitely gotten acquainted with an owl or two more than a few times, and we usually see some great animal tracks and sign as well. Not to mention lots of other bird sightings! (And with each epic nature sighting that I encounter, I often wonder why everyone doesn’t go foraging! But that is a blog post for another day…)
Anyway, once Pat and I arrived at our destination on that beautiful sunny day after driving three hours from our home in western Washington, it did not take long for us to spot numerous Elderberry shrubs along the river, with branches that were heavily drooping due to the sheer weight of bearing such an abundance of fruits. And so, after declaring our gratitude for these bountiful Blue Elder shrubs and offering the plants some stray pieces of hair from our heads (it was the least that we could do!), we excitedly harvested clusters and clusters of berries until our baskets were overflowing! And then we proceeded to deposit the harvested berries into another bag in our car and wander along to another location where we filled up our baskets with berries yet again. We did this a couple more times, and although I felt like a bit of an Elderberry “hoarder”, there was such an abundance of berry-filled bushes surrounding us that I don't think our foraging was impeding on the food supply of the wild animals that also enjoy these tasty fruits.
Just as we were about to call it day after an afternoon of harvesting and wandering, the skies suddenly grew dark and cloudy and the rain started pouring down on that scenic thirsty land. High up in the drastic jagged peaks above us, it sure did look like flurries were coming down! Hooray for rain and snow! And thank you, Elderberries!
Well, Pat and I concluded our adventures by indulging in some delicious German fare in town and clinking our glasses to two successful years of marriage (and 11 years of being together! Yay!! Boy, am I blessed!!! )
Now that I have really hyped up these Blue Elderberries, I’m going to share with you how to make nourishing medicinal syrup with them. I learned this recipe from the beautiful and knowledgeable Ethnobotany goddess, Lindsay Huetmann. I was lucky enough to participate in Lindsey’s Wild Plant Intensive a couple of years ago, and I am so glad that I did! If you want to transform and deepen your relationship wild plants, check out Lindsey’s offerings here: plantdorks.com
And now, a guide on how to harvest Elderberries and make them into syrup. . .
How to Make Blue Elderberry Syrup
Harvest the berries of the Blue Elder in the late summer or early fall, when the fruits are dark blue in color*. They might have a white powdery bloom on them, which is a natural occurrence when the fruits have reached maturity. Use scissors to snip entire clusters of berries off the branches.
*Please be sure that you have clearly and confidently identified any wild plant before you harvest and consume it, and avoid harvesting along roadsides or in areas that have been sprayed.
Time to separate the berries from their stems! I have found that the easiest way to do this is to first freeze the berry clusters. They don't need to be in the freezer for too long, just bag them up and leave them in there for an hour or two. This will make separating them from their stems much, much easier.
Once you have picked all the berries off their stems, give them a good rinse in a strainer and make sure to remove any straggling pieces of stems. You don't want to accidentally mix to too many of the stems into your syrup as they are are mildly toxic.
Place 1 cup of berries and 3 cups of water in a saucepan (If you do not have access to fresh Elderberries, you may use 1/2 cup of dried berries instead. You can probably find these at your local apothecary or check out mountainroseherbs.com to purchase online).
Bring the water and berries a low simmer for half an hour.
Strain the berries from the liquid using fine-mesh strainer placed over a bowl. Be sure to give the berries a good “mash” in the strainer, so as to release every last bit of medicinal liquid into the bowl.
Combine the liquid with 1 cup of honey and mix well. Store in bottles in the refrigerator for longevity. Will last for a few months!
Elderberry Syrup works great as a healthful topping for waffles, pancakes, ice cream, etc. or use as medicinal syrup.
When I am feeing a cold or flu coming on, I usually take about 1 Tbsp of Elderberry syrup once a day. If I am already sick, I’ll take it more often, perhaps 2 or 3 times a day.
Thank you Elderberry for your nourishment and medicine!
Hope you all try foraging for Blue Elderberries and making syrup at some point. If you do, be sure to share your stories with us!
And if anyone has an Elderberry wine recipe that they would like to share, please do!
Cheers to wild and wonderful berry-stained adventures,