The Elder Tree is a medium sized tree with oval saw-toothed leaves with five or seven leaflets per stalk. Their leaflets are arranged opposite to each other with one single leaflet at the tip – quite the formation! Each leaflet is feathered with small hairs on the underside.
From late May, masses of frothy white flowers start to bloom and flower until August. As soon as the tree has finished providing us with its beautiful fragrant blooms, it starts producing glorious berries in late summer/early Autumn, which later develop into purple-black Elderberries.
The berry clusters are made up of individual berries, which are small, about the size of a pencil width, and hang in clusters from the ends of the branches.
The Elder Tree has a fairly short-lived lifespan (up to 60 years). It grows abundantly in wet woodlands, hedgerows and river banks, given Elder normally needs a rich and damp soil. When the berries are ready to pick, the ripe clusters hang downwards on the plant.
Birds and wildlife love elderberries, so if you see a bush with ripe berries, don’t wait too long to pick. Always remember to pick 10-30% of what’s available on the plant, leaving plenty to support our ecosystem.
Not only does the Elder Tree produce blossoms in early summer and berries later in the season, there’s also a third crop – Jelly Ear Mushrooms! They grow on the dead branches of Elder Trees (another SB favourite).
Elderberries are edible – however please remember they must be cooked first to safely remove toxins. The raw berries are also mildly poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
At this stage, you’re probably thinking this doesn’t sound too promising, but I assure you that once cooked they are perfectly safe to eat and have a deep, rich flavour that is a power-house of nutrients.
As the stems are also poisonous, before cooking with your elderberries you need to wash and remove from their stems. This can be a slow and tedious process, you can either use a fork as a comb, pulling the fruit away from the stem – or, if you put your elderberry clusters in a bag in the freezer for a few hours, they will break away more easily. Taking the time to remove the stems is not only important due to their mild toxicity, but also as they are very bitter to taste. Once removed, you can either use straight away, dehydrate them or freeze them for use at a later date.
Elderberries are commonly used to make syrups, cordials, desserts and jam – as well as elderberry wine and infused vinegars. Flavour wise, they’re not overly sweet, but they have a deep earthy, fruity flavour with a hint of tartness.
Here are few ideas on how to use them:
Medicinally, elderberry has immune-enhancing and antiviral properties. It is a powerful natural remedy in treating viral infections like colds, cases of flu and upper respiratory infections. In addition, elderberries also have lots of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre.
They’re commonly available in the form of a syrup in natural health shops, but it’s just as easy to make your own elderberry syrup (see above!). With anti-inflammatory properties, they not only helps to prevent cold and flu but helps to soothe any symptoms you may already have.
It was thought that if you burned elder wood you would see the Devil, but if you planted an elder by your house it would keep the Devil away.
It is also said Elder trees provide refuge through a thunderstorm as it is never struck by lightning – striking stuff!
Bear in mind if you’re picking the berries later in the Summer, only the ripe berries and blossoms of elder are safe to eat. The stems, leaves, and unripe berries are toxic. You should also only seek out blue or black elderberries, the red elderberry varieties are also poisonous.
When in the fruiting stage, thankfully there aren’t really any other berries that look really similar.
Many of our Cookery Courses include a short foraging walk as part of the day, introducing you to a handful of commonly found wild ingredients.
Essential if you’re picking on private land. As with everything, respect is key and goes a long way.
If in doubt, leave it out.
Why rush? Nature isn’t going anywhere! Take time to ensure you safely identify your finds.
One step at a time.
No one becomes an expert overnight. Build up your identification skills and your confidence will grow.
Enjoy the process.
Foraging is not only about what you pick but the experience – Immerse yourself in nature and appreciate the little things. The fresh air, birds chirping, a light breeze or the feel of soil beneath your feet.
With an abundance of forage at your doorstep, why not start local?
The 10% rule.
Only take what you need (or 10% of what is available). This not only means that you leave plenty for other foragers, but also local wildlife. We want to enjoy our ecosystem not damage it.
Leave room for regrowth.
Never uproot a plant so that it is always able to regrow after you have foraged from it.
Wash before consumption.
Always give your foraging finds a good wash before consuming, especially when picking on busy routes/path.