As a slight autumnal chill returns on crisp mornings in August and the beginning of September, elderberries droop heavily on their branches ready to be gathered by human hand, browsed by deer, or nibbled by many birds including Robins, Blackbirds, Starlings and Tits.
This is an example of co-evolution for mutual benefit. Animals and birds gorge on elderberries to build up energy reserves for winter, and in the case of birds, disperse seed as far away as West Africa and the Middle East. In this way Elder guarantees her own procreation, her own genetic continuation.
Elderberries, as with any wild fare, are best gathered slowly and attentively using a knife or scissors to snip the very bottom of the red stems laden with berries. I like to leave my filled basket outside for a while to enable little insects to disperse. Once this is done, carefully remove only the deep purple/black berries from the stems, being very careful to discard all green or pale red berries and stem material, as these are not at all edible.
Traditional Uses of Elderberries & Medicinal Properties
Each part of elderberry has been used in many different ways across cultures and history. For example, the bark and roots once used to tan leather and as a fabric dye and the Romans were said to use the juice as a deep purple black hair dye.
But it is for its medicine and as an edible that Elder is most prized. Elderberries have long been known as the 'medicine chest of the country people’ and were traditionally used to treat an incredible range of illnesses from flu to bronchial problems, inflammatory conditions , blood circulation problems and sciatica to name just some examples.
Once known as the ‘Englishman’s Grape’ for its wide use to make elderberry wine. This wine was also commonly used to adulterate port to make it look a deeper shade and well aged. This was so common that dark red port became considered a good remedy for rheumatism and gout until it was discovered that that true vintage port had virtually zero pain relieving effects, and only the cheap port cut with large quantities of elderberry wine had this effect!
There is a strong contemporary evidence base for elderberries’ inhibitory effects on multiple different strains of flu;enhancinge the body’s immune healing response to infection. Additionally, the berries contain an anthocyanin which - in the past couple of decades – has been shown to inhibit tumour cells.
Its important to stress that the raw berries can be emetic (inducing vomiting) and irritant if eaten in large quantity and they contain cyanogenic glycosides that can produce harmful cyanide. This is particularly potent in green parts and seeds – so it really is essential to separate unripe berries and stems from ripe berries before use.
However, at a low pH when fermented as vinegar the cyanide potential is destroyed, and at temperatures above 26°C cyanide evaporates .So heating, cooking or fermenting are safe ways to prepare ripe elderberries
If you’re interested to learn more about how cyanogenic glycosides produce cyanide and why this is harmful, take a look at this blog by the Nordic Food Lab for a detailed explanation of hydrogen cyanide production in elderberries.
Preparations & Recipes
Traditionally, elderberries were widely used to make a ‘Rob’, an old word meaning a ‘juice thickened by heat’. I have a rob in my fridge that I was gifted several years ago that’s still going strong! A Rob is traditionally made by simmering a pan of berries in a little water for about half an hour and and then straining through muslin to separate the stones and pith from the liquid. The longer the berries are simmered for the less sugar or honey is needed. The elderberry liquid is then returned to the pan with (up to) an equal amount of sugar or honey and left to simmer for another hour to concentrate the liquid.
Elderberries pair beautifully with earthy and warming spices such as cinnamon, cardammon, star anise, ginger and pepper. These are added to the Rob according to taste, and the simmered liquid is then poured into sterilised jars - Its sets like a jam, so is best jarred rather than bottled. A rob may be made without the addition of any sugar, but it won’t keep as long as if made with honey or without any sweetener, and needs to be simmered until the liquid has reduced by at least half.
You can also make a wild infused vinegar combining elderberries with other nourishing herbs, immersed in raw apple cider vinegar, kept in a cupboard for 6 weeks before straining and bottling. This may be used as a salad dressing, a daily tonic taken by the tablespoon neat or diluted with warm water.
I love to make a spiced Elderberry Elixi', also known as an Oxymel; with a jar filled with berries, my favourite chai style spices of cardammon, ginger, cinammon and pepper, covered with two thirds brandy and one third raw honey. In 6 weeks or so once this has matured I will strain it and use it as an immune boosting tonic and delicious treat, taking a little several times a week.
I'll also add it to the occasional hot toddy for a real warming and comforting beverage, taken as the woodsmoke begins to pepper the colourful autumn evenings rich with spices, woolen jumpers and fireside times.