I've answered a few of the more common questions here, but feel free to jump in with more info if you have it!
What’s an elderberry?
Elderberries are small, dark berries that grow in clusters on elder trees (also called elderberry bushes). Elderberry bushes are a hardy plant growing native in many climates, often in the moist soil along roadsides and streams. They’re fast-growing and typically grow quite large and full, with compound leaves and tightly clustered bunches of tiny white flowers in late spring, followed by clusters of berries in late summer. The berries are a favorite of wildlife (especially birds) and are said to have many health benefits for humans too.
You can find a page of good photos here
What are the different kinds of elderberry?
There are many different varieties of elderberry bushes, but I’ll focus here on the most common.
The European Elder, or Sambucus nigra
(also called Black Elder or Common Elder), is found throughout warmer parts of Europe and North America. The berries are black to dark blue, and it’s the type of elderberry most frequently used in recipes and retail extracts and syrups.
The American Elder, or Sambucus canadensis
(also called Sweet Elder), is also used in recipes and said to be slightly sweeter than the Sambucus nigra
variety. It’s found in many climates, including most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Depending on who you ask, the canadensis
is technically a sub-set of the nigra
variety, but nurseries tend to list them as a separate species, so best to think of it as its own species for the purposes of choosing which types to plant together.
The red-berried elder, or Sambucus racemosa
, grows throughout the cooler parts of North America, but the berries, when ripe, are a bright red color. According to some sources, it is poisonous unless carefully seeded and cooked, but I’ve seen many more accounts that say the red elderberry contains toxins regardless of what’s done with it. So without being a horticulturalist or a doctor, my advice for anyone just starting would be to stick with blue, black or dark purple elderberries, and leave the reds alone.
What parts of the plant can I use?
The white flowers of the elderberry bush have been used in many things; pressed into tonics, brewed into wines and champagne, lightly battered and fried into fritters, or stirred into muffin or sponge cake mix for a light, sweet flavor.
The ripe berries, cleaned and cooked, can be made into many things: extracts, syrups, pies, jams, or used as garnish, dye or flavoring. The leaves, twigs, stems, roots and unripe berries of all elderberry plants are not edible, and contain toxins that can make a person quite sick. Ripe berries and flowers only!
Do elderberries have seeds?
Elderberries have tiny seeds that tend to stay crunchy even after cooking. These seeds can result in a slightly gritty taste when whole berries are used in recipes, but they are edible and don’t need to be removed before cooking or eating. (For this reason, many people like to cook elderberries in conjunction with other fruits, like apples or pears, to produce a milder flavor and smoother texture).
Can I eat the berries raw?
Some say that as long as they’re ripe you can eat them uncooked in small quantities, but most sources maintain that berries need to be cooked to fully remove all the toxins. (In addition, elderberries are really quite bitter until they’ve been sweetened with sugar or honey.) Again, as the non-doctor giving advice, I’d err on the side of caution and make sure your elderberries are washed and cooked. On the plus side, I’m collecting quite a few elderberry recipes here, so there should be no shortage of ways to cook them.
Are elderberries good for you?
Science answers this with a hesitant “we think so,” but traditional use and plenty of newer studies on this say a resounding YES! Elderberries contain potassium and large amounts of vitamin C, and have been proven in quite a few recent studies to shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms, as well as strengthen the immune system.
Elderberries are also a good source of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants which are responsible for giving many red and purple fruits their color.