The Milkweed Diaries

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Elderberries Galore!


Our friends Paul & Jude have a beautiful urban homestead in West Asheville with gardens you would not believe. Their little city lot is bursting with edible and beautiful plants -- including a superabundance of elderberries in their back yard.

Paul planted two elders a few years ago, and now there are more berries than one family could possibly use. Luckily for us.

Paul invited me to come pick elderberries earlier this week to help stem the elderberry tide, and we ended up with several gallons of elderberries piled in various vessels on our countertops. As the week has gone by, we have gradually preserved the elderberries in various ways, as I will detail below.

But first, a few words about the elder.

Paul's elders are English cultivars, varieties developed over hundreds (maybe thousands?) of years of cultivation of the plants that began as wild European elders. Elderberries are widely used in Europe, and have a long history there of medicinal and culinary use.

North America is home to wild native elders, including some growing wild in the valley where we live. The common American elder--the kind that grows on our land-- is a close cousin to the European elders, and like the European elders has a long history of being used for food and medicine. Native peoples of the Americas used various parts of the native elder to treat a variety of ailments, and also used the berry for food.

Elderberries are super-nutritious--high in vitamin C, potassium, beta carotene, and antioxidants. The berries of both European and American elders can be used in jams, pies, and other fruity concoctions, and of course to make elderberry wines. All of which are delightful ways to boost your vitamin C and antioxidant intake.

Among the medicinal uses of the various parts of the elder plant is the use of elderberries as a cold and flu fighter. According to Peterson's field guide to medicinal plants, studies have shown elderberry to be effective in the treatment of cold and flu.

Now, without further ado, here are some ways to make use of nutritious, delicious, medicinal elderberries.


Elderberry mead in the first flush of fermentation

Elderberries are one of the most famous fruits for winemaking, and elderberry honey mead is an ancient brew. Here's how we made ours.

Elderberry Mead

  • 1/2 gallon of elderberries for every gallon of mead (we used 2.5 gallons for a 5 gallon carboy)
  • 1 gallon honey per 5 or 6 gallons of mead
  • water
  • yeast (we used champagne yeast)
  • Glass carboy
  • Airlock
  1. Do your best to de-stem the berries. This can be tedious if you are processing a large quantity of berries, and you don't have to get rid of every last tiny scrap of stem, but especially be sure to remove the large, woody stems, as they contain cyanide. We pretty much completely de-stemed ours, just by hand, despite various online reports that de-steming with a plastic fork may be an easier way.
  2. Put the berries in a big pot or crock and squish with your hands until you've created a mushy, juicy mash.
  3. Add honey to a gallon or two of water in another large pot and heat until the honey is dissolved.
  4. Combine everything in a carboy or crock. You can let the mead ferment for a few days in a crock covered with a cloth (which will allow you to capture some wild yeast from the air) and then transfer to a carboy, or you can put it directly into the carboy, add storebought yeast (we used champagne yeast) and cap with an airlock. Either way, when it goes into the carboy, top off with water up to the shoulders and cap with an airlock.
  5. Ferment! After the initial bubbling stops, siphon off the liquid and compost the fruit, an allow to ferment again; bottle, age, and enjoy!


I also wanted to preserve some elderberries for medicinal use. I dried some of the berries, an easy way of preserving for teas or poultices, but what I really got excited about was making cough syrup.

Here's a great post on the medicinal properties of elderberries and making elderberry syrup from Dandelion Revolution, and here's a good overview of making herbal cough syrups from Kami McBride.

Elderberry syrup is a beautiful deep purple color and has a sweet, medicinal flavor.

My recipe for elderberry cough syrup includes brandy for preservation purposes and taste, local honey for its immune-boosting properties and as a sweetener, and ginger because it is a warming herb and just plain tastes good.

Elderberry Syrup for Cough & Cold

  • 2 cup ripe elderberries, de-stemed and washed
  • 2 cups non-chlorinated water
  • 1/2 cup local honey
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 2-3 inches fresh ginger root, sliced
  1. Combine the berries, ginger, and water in a medium saucepan and heat to a low boil.
  2. Simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes until the berries are mushy and you have a beautiful purple liquid thoroughly infused with elderberry and ginger.
  3. Strain with a fine mesh strainer and compost the berry/ginger mush.
  4. Return the hot liquid to the pot, add honey and stir until dissolved and incorporated.
  5. Remove from heat, add brandy, and stir.
  6. After cooling, bottle in dark glass bottles. Keeps for several months, and even longer if refrigerated.

Between cough syrup, mead, and drying, we managed to preserve just over three and a half gallons of elderberries this week. There are purple stains from the berries throughout the house, and I keep finding purple patches of skin on my body, temporary elder tattoos from the week of elderberry overload.

You would think that after such a total elderberry immersion, I would be burnt out on the elder, but I actually found myself wishing for just a few more berries when my friend Sandi mentioned that she makes an elderberry liquor by soaking elderberries in brandy. Maybe next year!


Dana said...

Beth, you're speaking my language! That elderberry stuff sounds really fun and exciting and what fun to go to Jude and Paul's too! I like me some elderberry wine and mead and I especially love it mixed with blackberry or blueberry- it mellows the very astringent taste a little bit. What a glorious medicinal berry! Have fun and holler if you want to do any herbal projects together.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

Have you sampled the elderberry mead yet?

Milkweed said...

Jack, not yet, but I took a swig of the cough syrup and it was POTENT! I'll post something later in the year about how the various meads turned out...

Dana, how about making some more elderberry concoctions when the wild native elderberries come in? The berries are out, but still green on our land. Cordial?