I am a pushover for the blue elderberry. Sambucus cerulea and S. racemosa, an amazing shrub that offers the knowledgeable forager a tremendous bounty of uses. Parts of the blue elderberry are used for making friction fire, musical instruments, hunting weapons, and traps. And late summer and autumn prepare the ripe blue elderberries for a sweet and delicious syrup.
Elderberries grow in riparian habitats, road banks, meadows, and damp forest openings, up to timberline.
Blue elderberry: Sambucus cerulea and S. racemosa, a wild native shrub. Range from British Columbia south to California. S. mexicana ranges from northern California south into Mexico and east into Nevada and southwestern New Mexico. The S. callicarpa species (Pacific red elder) grows in coastal habitats from southern Alaska to central California.
Cook the fruit before eating
Warning! Elderberry is not a trail snack raw.
Blue elderberry and more so, the red elderberry, contain the compound hydrocyanic acid. This chemical compound may lead to mild cyanide poisoning if consumed in large quantities. Cooking the fruit first renders the hydrocyanic acid harmless.
The bark, leaves, and roots contain the highest concentrations of the acid. But do not eat the berries raw as they can cause mild nausea. The fruit must be boiled and cooked well, before consumption.
Cooking and drying the fruit removes toxins
The cooking removes any toxicity from the elderberries, and this is our recommendation before consuming the berries! Drying may not remove all of the cyanide toxicity in the seeds. So simmer the fruit a good 40 minutes to make sure. It is not recommended to consume elderberry if pregnant. Cooking is recommended to completely remove any threat of toxicity.
Is it safe to eat?
Yes, after cooking the berries are very safe to eat. Now after all the warning about eating the berries raw you may be a bit turned off. I understand. But so you know, I have been eating blue elderberry in the form of syrup for over 30 years. And yes, the berries are safe to eat when cooked. Also a glass of elder wine has been known to soothe my throat now and then.
Medicinally, the blue elder syrup is a strong immune booster. You can use the syrup recipe below for a medicinal syrup. We use less sugar for the medicine batch which makes it a bit tart. Actually, we reduce the sugar as much as possible making it quite yummy tart! Also the flower clusters are non-toxic, edible, and also medicinal.
Basic Elderberry Syrup
The syrup is, as you imagine if your familiar with the ripe berries are a beautiful rich purple color. The syrup is incredibly delicious on homemade pancakes, vanilla ice cream, or made into wild elderberry cream pie!
1-quart blue elderberries
Juice of one lemon
3 cups water
1 tbsp cornstarch or flour
1/4 cup sugar or honey
Crush elderberries, add 1 cup of water and sugar or honey,
and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain, and then add 2 cups of water
to the seeds and pulp and strain again.
Add to the liquid the lemon juice and adjust sugar if desired.
Bring to a boil and thicken slightly by stirring one tablespoon cornstarch
or flour in one tablespoon cold water. Stirring this into the simmering syrup.
Makes 5 cups
According to the author, Charlotte Bringle Clarke, “This syrup has few equals when used over pancakes or ice cream.” I have to agree, completely with Charlotte.
Elderberry Cream Pie
Now for the pie! The reason I really wanted to share the blue elderberries many qualities is the cream pie recipe. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
Harvest the ripe blue elderberries in the fall
We harvest the ripe berries each fall. And with great anticipation and delight. But after picking the ripe berries we must cook and reduced the berry liquid in preparation for making elderberry syrup. The syrup is the main ingredient you must make first before you make the elderberry cream pie itself.
Blue Elderberry Syrup
We almost did not get a picture of the pie it went so fast. Oh, and the syrup is, as you imagine, a beautiful rich color, incredibly delicious on homemade pancakes, vanilla ice cream, or in elderberry cream pie! The berries make an outstanding wine.
Elderberry Cream Pie Recipe
3 eggs, separated
2 Tbsp grated orange or lemon peel
3/4 cup elderberry syrup
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/3 cup of sugar
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 baked 9-in pie shell.
Blend over heat until smooth: the egg yolks, elderberry syrup, unflavored gelatin, 1/3 cup sugar, and salt.
Do not boil. Add grated orange or lemon peel and pour into a bowl; refrigerate until slightly firm.
Do not refrigerate too long, (like overnight), just until it is slightly firm, this does not take very long.
Otherwise, you will not be able to blend the whipped cream and meringue with the jelled juice.
Beat the egg whites until stiff and add cream of tartar and 1/4 cup sugar, beating continuously.
Beat heavy cream until fluffy and fold half into the egg-white mixture.
Fold the egg-white mixture into the refrigerated sauce.
Pour into pie shell and garnish with remaining whipped cream.
The Amazing Blue Elderberry, Thank you, Charlotte Clarke, for the delicious recipes!
Historical uses of the blue elderberry
I began working with this shrub when I lived in the Sierra’s where I discovered the local Miwok community has used that blue elderberry extensively for many thousands of years. This useful shrub is an important part of their material and musical culture.
A few of the very neat survival applications about the elderberry wood is its soft center pith which can easily be scraped and removed to make a hollow stem. Straight long shafts of the wood split into then the soft pith removed and the two pieces of elderberry glued and wrapped back together again for a serviceable “Blow Gun”. Shorter straight sections of the wood are split part way and hollowed out for clapper stick. (A musical instrument enjoyed by the Pomo and Miwok people’s.)
Green Elderberry Bark
If you are using the elderberry stalks green, you will want to carve off, strip, scrape, and remove all the green bark, and let the wood dry some. A spindle made from the elderberry is excellent either for the bow drill or hand drill friction fire making process.
Elderberry Hand Drill Spindle
If you are a fan of the Man vs. Wild or Born Survivor series with Bear Grylls, Bear made a hand drill fire in the Sierra episode using a long slender spindle from the wild blue elderberry.
Leave Berries for Wildlife!
The berries are food for, Western blackbird, House Finch, Red-Shafted Flicker, Ash-Throated Flycatcher, Black Headed Grosbeak, Scrub and Steller Jays, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Bullock’s and Hooded Oriole, and Phainopepla. Please leave some berries for the bears too.
Remember; positively identify any plant before use, edible, medicinal, or utilitarian application.
“Edible and Useful Plants of California” by Charlotte Bringle Clarke (Great wild food recipes include the elderberry pie and syrup I am sharing here.)
“Edible and medicinal Plants of the West” By Gregory L. Tifford