Elderberries: An Old-fashioned treat
I know you all have seen those saucer shaped clusters (umbels) of white flowers on the roadsides in early summer. Toward the middle of the summer, reddish black berries about a quarter inch in diameter replace the white. They are mildly sweet but should not be eaten raw, at least in large quantities. Some people are sensitive to toxins they contain when not cooked. Once processed into jelly, syrup or wine any concerns are eliminated.
These are elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) and can be identified by their leaves, which come out in pairs and are divided into multiple opposite blades. It is one of the few native woody plants with opposite compound leaves.
The shrubs seldom grow over 10 or 12 feet tall, but can reach heights of 20 feet. They produce large quantities of fruit and can thrive in wet areas like the edges of our ditches.
Probably most people have heard of elderberry wine, but since I’m not a winemaker I have other uses for them. I like elderberry jelly, though I don’t take mine straight so to speak. Elderberries make a fine jelly, but they are very low in pectin, so the mixture doesn’t jell well unless you cheat. I like to mix in crabapple juice to coax it along a little. I’ve never had trouble getting the concoction to set if I mixed elderberries about half and half with wild apple or crabapple juice.
If you don’t want to pollute your elderberries, simply cook down the sweetened syrup a little and can it to use on pancakes and other quick breads. It’s even good on ice cream. If you’re not into canning, you can freeze the berries in either a dry pack or a wet sugar pack. It’s up to you.
Elderberries are high in Vitamins A and C. Several chemicals in the berries, particularly flavonoids and anthocyanins, have strong antioxidant properties. The Native Americans used elderberries for various ailments. They contain a natural antiviral agent, and some people use it as part of their treatment regimen for colds. Commercial preparations are available at many natural foods outlets.
There is one caution, however. The stems, leaves, and green fruits of elderberry contain a toxin which releases poisonous cyanides. These in large quantities could be fatal. More than likely they would give you a mild upset stomach. I have eaten copious amounts of raw elderberries with no adverse effects. To be on the safe side it is important to clean your berries well and remove any bits of leaves, stems, and unripe fruits. As with anything new, always start with small quantities.
Cooking for any length of time will remove these toxins, but if you like to savor elderberry tea, you might wish to use caution in its preparation. Use only ripe berries and never include any stems or leaves in it.
There is another reason for removing the leaves and stems. They have a fetid odor. You won’t want to reek of elderberries. If you’re not a Monte Python fan, that last comment might slip by you.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City (firstname.lastname@example.org).