Berries in general are high on most people’s Most Enjoyed Wild Foods lists, and mine is no exception. But should I include Autumn Olive, with its firm, red berry? Or the Beach Plum, with its exquisite mauve-purple gem? Raspberries? Blackberries? Blueberries or huckleberries? While I spend inordinate hours every summer gathering these berries with my children, (and eating them fresh and raw with stained hands and mouths), I must include here in the Top Ten Edibles list the Elderberry. Why? Because it just doesn’t get much attention, that’s why, and it’s incredibly easy to harvest and prepare into delicious food. My beloved “mentor” herbalist Euell Gibbons commented that hundreds of thousands of pounds of this berry go uneaten every summer, and it’s true—I rarely come across other elderberry connoisseurs even though these lovely small trees grow plentifully around marshes, bogs and streams.
The lovely elder is much more medicinal than it is edible, so the bulk of its information will be in the Top Ten Medicinal Herbs article, but I will say here that its plant matter (leaves, flowers, berries, bark) should be harvested with utmost respect for its inner deity, or Elder Mother. Legends abound about the Hulda Mutter who, in old European folk lore, resided inside the trunk of the tree. Great care was taken when harvesting the wood for firewood and many peasants refused to cut it for such a menial purpose, instead bequeathing to the elder tree the highest status of the land and using its products (if at all) for strictly healing or musical purposes. Indeed, the small hollow twigs can be made into rudimentary flutes, and the leaves, flowers, berries and bark are all venerated for their healing effects on the respiratory system, bronchial chambers, immune system, and for skin complaints.
So how do you enjoy the edible berries? First, be sure to cook them. This is important, since the berries have a rather rank scent about them and will cause upset tummies if eaten raw. But cooked…they impart a rich, earthy flavor and combine wonderfully with blueberries. Add them into your recipes for muffins and pies, using half elderberries and half blueberries or huckleberries.
Another way to use elderberries is to harvest them and place them fresh into a glass mason jar. Follow your favorite cordial recipe and cover them with vodka or brandy, and sugar. The longer they steep the mellower they become, and once strained will delight guests with their vibrant purple color and sweet flavor.
Elder flowers are also edible and are usually prepared as fritters. Harvest the entire flower head from the stalk and dip it into a prepared bowl of batter. Fry quickly on high heat and serve with a light honey or sweet-and-sour sauce.
To Your Whole Life,