Elderberry Season

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To Eat or Not to Eat

Before eating the blue elderberries that are ripening up right now, I decided to check to make sure they are safe. An online perusal left me a little confused and unsure.

There was only one report from the CDC of poisoning from elderberry juice. It happened here in California back in 1983. Eleven people were sickened and one hospitalized after drinking elderberry juice. All recovered quickly. Reassuring? Maybe not. 

Turns out, they drank juice that they made by squeezing raw elderberries, twigs and stems included, through a sieve. Add sugar and apple juice, and voilà: nausea, vomiting, abdominal …well you get the picture. 

Ask the Experts

Most articles online and in books caution one to avoid unripe berries. Some stated that cooking the berries is enough to neutralize the toxicity. Although this was reassuring, I wanted more. What if some of the berries were not very ripe? Would cooking unripe berries be enough? 

After a cursory, but less than satisfactory, Internet investigation, I turned to an expert source for information, my niece. She is a family practitioner, so I thought she might know something about this. Her comment was, “I try to avoid things that can lead to nausea and vomiting. Maybe it’s just me.”

Next stop, Facebook, of course. Here I heard from someone who had just recovered from food poisoning. You can guess what she had to say.

Next I emailed a local expert, Christopher Nyerges. Author and head of the School of Self-Reliance, I was sure he would steer me right. He said that cooking the berries should be enough but that the berries in the picture I sent him (see below) looked very immature. Indeed! They were plump and bluish with white powder on the shrub, but once rinsed, they were quite green. He also said that ripe or unripe, uncooked berries sicken about half the people eating them, “so you should try a little and see how you like it, but since you cooked it, it should be ok. Let me know.” 

Unripe elderberries
First batch of elderberries. Quite green and immature.

My husband’s contribution to this discussion was, “Why would you do this?” And let me answer that. The berries while cooking have a delicious aroma. Furthermore, the color makes me swoon – it is gorgeous. How could I not try that? 

The Internet to the Rescue

While this whole drama was playing out, a friend of mine who also picked some berries was also researching their suitability for consumption. So emails and text messages with more information were being exchanged.  

Finally, we found two websites that provided the more in-depth, scientific-sounding information that I was looking for. The first one, Compound Chemistry has the most scientific looking poster, The Chemistry of Elderflower and Elderberries.

The article that goes along with the poster is both understandable and convincing. Turns out, the color comes from anthocyanins, also responsible for the blue in blueberries, cherries, plums, etc,. The aroma is due to a more complex set of compounds, the most significant one being cis-rose oxide.

Though the flowers can be eaten raw or cooked, “the plants’ leaves and stems, and the seeds of the berries, can cause nausea, and general unpleasantness if ingested without cooking.” The culprit is cyanogenic glycoside sambunigrin. The cyanide group is bonded to a sugar. The sugar bond can be broken during digestion, resulting in the toxic effects of cyanide. Alkaloid compounds, including the poisonous alkaloid sambucine, are also present in the leaves, stems and berries. 

According to Compound Chemistry, “Toxicity from the juice of raw berries has been reported, but if the berries are being cooked, there is no cause for concern. This is because cooking breaks down the cyanogenic glycosides and sambucine present, rendering them harmless.”

Finally. This is what I was looking for! 

But is it ripe?

The next elderberry puzzle was, why did I think the berries that I picked were ripe when they were so obviously green? In my first attempt to pick ripe berries, I selected plump berries with a bluish tint covered with a white powder. I was finding that darker berries, still dusted with white powder, seemed to fall off the stems before I could even get to them. Furthermore, most that remained were somewhat dessicated. 

Cluster of plump but immature elderberries
Berries from first batch. I picked the plump bluish berries in front, to the left. When washed they looked like the green berries shown above.

A blog post by Wineforest Wild Foods entitled: Elderberries: The Mystery of Ripeness provides clear information on how to select ripe berries. You have to squish a few berries before picking. The juice of ripe berries is a lovely wine red, while immature berries have a clear, greenish juice. Armed with this new information I returned to the elderberry bushes to squish and pick. 

Clear greenish juice of immature berries
The squish test demonstrates that these berries are unripe.
Ripe berries have red juice
Though this cluster has fewer berries and they are less plump, the squished berries release deep red juice.
Small cluster of ripe berries
This is what the ripe berries looked like on the shrub.

I cooked and tasted juice made from both the first batch of immature berries and the second batch of ripe ones. Although I added sugar, both were tart, somewhat astringent, but truly delicious. On the first go-around I tasted a teaspoon of juice and waited until the next day to try more. No ill effects! I tasted a couple of tablespoons more before making a new batch with the ripe berries. The ripe berries weren’t much sweeter, but they had a deeper, richer flavor. I’ll dream about elderberry juice until I get a chance to collect some more.

Separating berries from stems
Separating berries from stems was a bit tedious. One website suggests freezing the berries and they will fall off the stems. I used this method on the first batch of unripe berries. These ripe berries actually fell off without freezing.
Cooked berries
This picture does not do the color justice. It is deep and rich, and the smell is heavenly. You can see some small stems in the pot. I poured the berries into a strainer. Using a spoon, I strained out the pulp and stems, collecting the juice in a jar. I added about 1/4 c sugar. I drank it (about 1/2 cup of juice) over an hour ago and still feel good. 🙂

Word of caution

Before leaving I’d like to caution everyone about foraging. First, never taste or eat anything that you are unsure about. Second, we live in a densely populated region. Although you may only be collecting a small amount of plant matter, if others do this too we are likely to stress an already highly stressed system. Only forage native plants where you have permission. Better yet, grow these plants yourself so you can enjoy them year after year. Be sure to leave plenty of seeds and berries for birds and other critters. Also, remember it takes many attempts for plants to successfully reproduce and naturalize. Forage responsibly!

4 thoughts on “Elderberry Season

  1. Barbara, delighted with the information from your latest post on elderberries. Did you know that the juice may also be good for the immune system? You might want to keep some for the flu season this fall. Thank you for your wonderful research on this edible native plant.

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      Hi Sherri. Yes, I have read about its likely benefits to the immune system. If I make some more I may just freeze a bit. Mostly, though, it has a very interesting flavor. Thanks for commenting! Have a great summer.

  2. A classic post. One of your best, IMHO. Interesting, informative and funny. Great images, too.

    • weedingwildsuburbia

      Thanks, Pamela! I enjoyed writing this one very much. In fact, you may notice from the post time (if you can see that) that I stayed up pretty late to get it done. Hope you have a great summer!

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