As summer drifts into autumn, elderberries become a common sight alongside Britain's country lanes, garden verges and woodlands. These small, purple-black berries are found growing in bunches on elder trees (Sambucus nigra) and are a valuable resource for humans and wildlife alike.
Our guide explores this important fruit, delving into its folklore, health benefits, where to find it and recipe ideas.
Elder tree facts
- Elder trees can grow up to 15m tall.
- The trees can live for 60 years.
- Elders are hermaphrodite, which means they have both male and female reproductive parts within the same flower.
- The trees are often mistaken for walnuts tree – yet, unlike the walnut, elders have oppositely arranged leaves.
- Elderflower guide – where to find it, how to identify and recipe ideas
- Monthly foraging guide – what's in season, where to find it, and how to forage responsibly
When are elderberries in season?
Elderberries ripen between August and October, replacing the elderflower clusters seen in earlier in the year in late spring.
Where can I find elderberries?
Elder trees grow in woodlands, hedgerows, scrub and wasteland. They may also be found along road verges and often crop up in gardens. Their seeds are distributed via animal droppings, so keep an eye out for the tree's fresh green leaves around rabbit warrens and badger sets – or vice versa.
Can I eat elderberries?
Yes, but they should be cooked first to safely remove the lectin and cyanide (toxins).
Raw berries, which are tart, are mildly poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Elder branches, bark and leaves should not be consumed at all.
What are the health benefits of elderberries?
Christian custom depicts the elder as evil, a symbol of sorrow and death and bearer of bad spirits, while pagans believed it to remove harmful spells and induce vivid dreams. Leaves of the tree were once hung in doorways and windows to guard against evil, and the berries – thought to possess antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties – have long been associated with healing.
These days, the berry’s medicinal properties are widely recognised, and it is often harvested in August by opportunistic country folk to help strengthen the immune system and fight cold and flu.
How are elderberries important for wildlife?
The elder tree as a whole is an important resource for many different species of mammal, insect and bird in the British countryside.
- Flowers – provide nectar for numerous insect species. They are also eaten by small mammals.
- Berries – a valuable food for birds and mammals, such as dormice and bank voles.
- Elder leaves – elder foliage is a nutrient source for moth caterpillars, such as the dot moth, white spotted pug and swallowtail.
Why not create your own flu-curing cordial? It’s simple and will last the winter. Grab a tub-full of berries on your next trip out, being sure to only pick ripe fruit. Put the elders in a pan and add water to just cover the fruit. Boil for 15 minutes and then strain the contents through muslin. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and 500g of sugar to each litre of liquid, then boil again before allowing to cool. Dilute to taste for a delicious remedy to a winter ailment.
This is a full wine-making recipe and, done well, can produce a red wine good enough to compete with many supermarket wines. Occasionally you will produce something truly exquisite. Just like grapes, elderberries can differ year on year. Some years every tree seems to be weighed down with massive clusters of plump, juicy fruits that all go ripe at the same time. Other years are leaner but elder trees are so abundant you should find enough berries for this recipe.
Large fermenting bucket with lid
Bung and air lock
2kg/4lb elderberries – remove stems and any green berries
5 litres/8.7 pints of boiling water
1.5kg/3 lbs of sugar
Juice of one lemon or 1 tsp citric acid
1 tsp pectolase
1 campden tablet (optional)
1 tsp yeast nutrient
Yeast recommendations: Gervin Wine
Yeast GV2-Robust wine, Vinters Harvest wine yeast VR21 & R56.
1. Freeze the berries overnight, as this makes it easier to prise them from their bitter green stems. It also breaks the skin and allows juice to run more freely.
2. Put the berries in the fermenting bucket and crush, squeezing out as much juice as you can. I recommend a clean pair of rubber gloves for this job. Gently squish the berries in your hands and try not to crush the seeds inside.
3. Whack in the sugar and pour over a litre of boiling water, stirring until the sugar has fully dissolved. Add the rest of the water, the acid and yeast nutrient. If you wish, take a hydrometer reading to see how strong it is. The campden tablet (if using) should also be added now – this kills bacteria but can cause headaches in some. If you do use a campden tablet, leave the mix for 24 hours.
4. Check the temperature is below 32°C before adding the yeast. Ideally, this should be made into a yeast starter but if that sounds too technical, sprinkling the yeast over the must (unfermented wine) still works.
5. Leave to stand for 3-4 days so vigorous fermentation can take place and then siphon into a demijohn. Leave it for around a month.
6. Syphon it into another demijohn, leaving the lees (aka sediment) behind. This process is called racking and should be repeated between 1 and 3 more times depending on how much sediment builds up. Top up with boiled-then-cooled water each time as you will lose some liquid.
7. When the air-lock stops bubbling, your wine is ready to bottle. Cold may pause the fermentation process, so if you are not sure then move your demijohn to somewhere warmer. The steadier the temperature is kept during fermentation, the better. A hydrometer allows you to be sure. Take a hydrometer reading after each racking. As soon as the reading is stable for three days, your wine is ready to bottle.
8. When ready, siphon your wine into sterilised bottles adding corks. Don’t use screwtop bottles. Let your wine sit for at least a month, if not a year or two, before drinking. If this is too difficult, make 10 times this amount and hide as much as you can.
Use up foraged elderberries, blackberries, hawthorn haws or crab apples in this fruity homemade ketchup – a great sauce for BBQ grub, says BBC Good Food.
You will need
- 500g elderberries
- 500g mix of blackberries, hawthorn haws and/or crab apples
- 3 shallots, chopped
- 2 tsp salt
- 300ml red wine vinegar
- 250g light muscovado sugar
For the spice bag:
- 3 dried chillies
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 3 thin slices of ginger
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
- 4 pared strips of lime zest
1. Wash your bottles in hot soapy water, rinse well and leave upside-down to dry. Wash the fruit and then tip into a large pan with the shallots, salt and vinegar. Measure the spice bag ingredients on to a square of muslin, tie with kitchen string and add to the pan.
2. Bring slowly to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer very gently, partially covered, for 30mins until all the fruit is softened. Remove the spice bag and press the mixture through a plastic sieve to remove seeds and tough skins.
3. Put your bottles in a moderate oven (180ºC/160ºC fan/gas 4) for 10mins. Return the ketchup mixture to the rinsed-out pan and add the sugar. Bring to the boil, stirring, then boil hard for 8-10mins until thick and syrupy. Decant into your warm bottles, seal and label. Your delicious hedgerow ketchup will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Main image ©Getty
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