Earlier in the year, I foraged for elderflower. Now that the pollinators have visited and summer has stretched on, the blooms have turned into berries and I’ve been foraging again. Specifically, to make elderberry syrup!
Elderberry syrup is delicious enough to simply have as a treat, but along with fire cider, it is one of my go-to remedies to get through the fall and winter sick season. Forget the artificial and colored crap that comes in the plastic bottles from the drug store. This year, try and combat cold and flu season naturally and make your own elderberry syrup. You can make the syrup from dried fruit, but fresh is much better, and now is the time to forage for the berries.
How to Forage for Elderberries
The elderberries that I have in my area are blue elderberries, Sambucus cerulea or Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea. This is the elderberry native to California. The taxonomy of elderberries gets confusing, as there are many different varieties depending on where you live. There are also varieties that go under the name S. mexicana, S. nigra or S. canadensis.
Sambucus is an easy plant to forage for. They are found alongside rivers and creeks and can be shrubs to small trees. When there is one, there is usually many! They also adapt well to the garden, and are a great addition to habitat gardens and hedgerows. In Old-World gardens, elder was commonly planted at the edge of the herb garden, believed to be the protector of the space.
They are dormant in the winter, but they start to leaf out in February (at least, in my area). Their leaves are opposite and pinnate, meaning they have multiple ‘leafs’ on one stem. They are a dark green, and each leaflet is finely toothed. In early spring, they start to get flowerheads at the end of each branch, and they open and turn from green to cream to tan. By early May, are in full bloom. You can see lots of pictures of the flowers in my elderflower post. Come mid-summer, the leaves often start to yellow.
In my area, the berries are just now starting to ripen. Individual berries are small, about the size of a pencil width, and hang in clusters from the ends of the branches. The berries of blue elderberry often look white, because of the natural yeast, called “bloom”, that covers them. Some of the clusters will have both black and blue berries.
I’ve been foraging for the berries along the river on my morning walks with Stella. To harvest, simply use pruners to clip off the clusters. Remember that unripe berries are toxic, so avoid any that are green. You want elderberries that are either black, or in my case, often blue-ish. Look for clusters with a few dried berries, which will show that the cluster is ripe. They also fall easily off the stem when they are fully ripe or are soft and explode when you squeeze them.
Take some time when you’re out there collecting to connect with nature and give thanks for the abundance! There aren’t a lot of other plants producing berries right now that could be confused with elderberry, but if you’re unsure, just look for the bushes covered in birds. They love the berries as well! Elder plants are a fabulous wildlife plant, and serve many different animals in the community. I’ve spotted orioles, jays, mockbirds, finches, and woodpeckers eating the berries. I also spotted two beautiful coyotes hanging out under them!
Important to note:
Elderberries should not be eaten raw! A few here or there won’t kill you, but too may cause digestive issues. This is one berry you want to take home and cook to enjoy. Stick to the blackberries for your trail snack.
Elderberries also stain, so you probably want to avoid wearing white while working with these. I actually plan on using some for a natural dye project, so stay tuned!
General Foraging Advice:
Don’t trespass and don’t be a jerk. Pack it in, pack it out, and leave light footsteps. Avoid harvesting elderberries (or anything!) from areas that have been sprayed or on roadsides.
Avoid harvesting all the berries from one plant. General foraging practice is to take no more than 20%, of each plant or the population. The native wildlife also wants the berries!
How to make Elderberry Syrup:
Elderberry has immune-enhancing and antiviral properties and is a powerful natural remedy in treating viral infections like colds, cases of flu, upper respiratory infections and herpes outbreaks. Skip to the bottom if you want a printable recipe!
This recipe is for syrup that will be good for about 3 months. There are many recipes floating around on the interwebs, but they use a different process of making the syrup that uses more water. These syrups will spoil faster. The recipe that I use is based off Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe, who is a well-known and respected herbalist, and a source that I trust.
However, 3 months puts us only to October, and I usually get sick in later winter. The berries won’t last that long on the trees, so I’m foraging now and stocking up. I plan on drying some but mostly, I will cook the berries into juice, then freeze that. I’ll then reduce to the syrup as needed.
About the Ingredients:
I add cinnamon and ginger to my syrup, but these are completely optional. Cinnamon and ginger are both warming herbs. Ginger aids in circulation and can help combat any nausea that comes with a cold or flu. Cinnamon calms the belly and helps stabilize blood sugar, which is useful when taking a sweet syrup. Cloves would be another good addition.
You want to use raw honey, as raw honey has anti-bacterial factors, with help with the healing power of this elderberry syrup. It also helps act as a preservative to keep your elderberry syrup from spoiling too quickly. To maintain the healing benefits of raw honey, it shouldn’t be heated over 110°F (43°C), so add to your syrup at the very end. My honey was crystallized, so I set my jar outside in the sun for a bit to make it easier to incorporate into the juice.
About the Process:
You want to remove the berries from the stems. Remember, the leaves and stems and green berries are toxic. Nothing that will kill you, but it can cause stomach distress. Take the time to destem, which is easy- just pull the berries off the stems with your fingers. You can do full bunches at a time.
The easiest way to clean your berries is once they are destemmed, put the berries in a bowl and cover with water. Swish around and any leaves, stems or green berries will float to the surface, which you can just pour off. Drain, and you’re ready to go!
This recipe uses ratios, so you can make it with whatever amount of berries you have. I had about 8 cups of berries, which yields about 2 cups of syrup.
- Fresh, ripe elderberries, de-stemmed and picked over
- Cinnamon sticks (if desired)
- Fresh or dried ginger (if desired)
- Add the elderberries to a pot with a bit of water to cover the bottom and help the berries start to cook (I used about a 1/4 cup to my 8 cups of berries).
- Cook at a simmer until soft, using a spoon or potato masher to break them apart and release the juice. Once soft and the berries have broken open, strain out the seeds and skin though a jelly bag, a fine-mesh sieve, or a cheesecloth lined colander.
- Measure the amount of juice you have. I used 8 cups of berries and had about 2 cups of juice. Add back to the pot with the spices (if desired), and simmer until reduced by half.
- Strain out spices, if used, and measure the concentrated juice, and mix with an equal part honey. I had one cup of syrup, and when added to 1 cup of honey, yields 2 cups of syrup.
- Once cool, decant your syrup into a sterilized jar or bottle, and store in the fridge. This should keep for about 3 months. You an add a shot or two of brandy if desired for an additional preservative and (ahem….therapeutic properties).
- To treat a cold or flu, take 1 tablespoon, 4 times a day, once you start feeling ill and during your sickness.
Legal blah blah blah so I don’t get in trouble with the Man.
All information presented on this website is for ideas and education only.This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. I research all information shared on this site, but any reliance you place on such information is strictly at your own risk and not a substitute for medical or any other professional advice of any kind. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Individual results may vary.