People once planted elder trees to protect their homes from packs of trolls and evil. According to Norse mythology, Freya, the goddess of love, lived in one. Different parts of the tree have long been used in herbal medicine—and in cooking.
Where to Find It
Elder grows in fertile soil at the edge of woods, in parks, and hedges—and quite often in the natural areas near around human habitats, where it often crosses over from being a cultivated garden plant to become a wild stray. It can tolerate wind, frost, salt, and shade.
Salt marshes, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, towns, hedges.
When to Find It
Pick the unripe berries in August, or wait for ripe ones in September or October.
Unripe berries: August.
How to Spot It
Elder is a very common bush or tree that grows up to seven meters tall. In July it blooms with tiny, creamy white flowers clustered in round umbels that are 10-20 cm in diameter. Break off a branch and notice the white core that runs through the tree. The bark is greyish-brown and often covered with a greenish layer of algae. Each flower produces a single small elderberry that is a deep purple color and shiny.
How to Pick It
Clip off the umbels of green/unripe or dark red/ripe berries with a pair of scissors. Be careful when handling the ripe berries—they can turn to mush, and the highly pigmented juice can be nearly impossible to get out of your clothes.
Ripe berries: September, October.
On the palate
Don't eat elderberries raw. After being cooked, they take on a dark, prominent fall-like flavor.
The berries have no particular scent.
Rinse the berry-filled elder umbels in a colander, clip off the roughest stems, and boil the ripe berries for 15-20 minutes, or bake them in the oven until they they look like raisins. Raw elderberries contain prussic acid, so if you want to avoid stomach problems, be sure to cook them. After boiling, strain the juice through a cloth, then freeze it or pour it into scalded glass bottles.
Elderberries don't taste like much on their own, and are very low in acid. So no matter how you use the juice, you’ll probably want to add some acidity, often in the form of lemon. Throw in some sugar as well, and suddenly, lots of interesting flavors emerge. You can drink elderberry juice hot or cold, and with a shot of rum if you prefer. Boil the juice with apple slices, cinnamon, and clove, for the classic elder soup recipe, usually served with crushed rusks. You can make a syrup from the concentrated berry juice and use it in sherbert or dessert sauces. A shot of concentrated elderberry juice will liven up a red wine sauce for venison. Steep elderberries in vodka to make schnapps or infused them in oil. You can use the raw, unripe fruit to make a type of capers by first salting and then pickling them. However, remember that you risk stomach problems if you eat elderberries, including the green ones, without cooking them first.
Fresh elderberries don't have a long shelf life—a few days in the refrigerator in a container with an airtight lid. You might add a bit of sodium benzoate to the boiled juice to extend its shelf life.
Blackthorn berries have some of the same structure and size as elderberries—and they can be used in the same way.
Risk of misidentifying the plant
Edible elder can be confused with the toxic dwarf elder, which isn't a tree, but an herbaceous perennial. Dwarf elder also has pale red flowers that smell a bit like marzipan. Red elderberry is also toxic and can be recognized by its berries, which aren't as dark as the edible kind, and grow in egg-shaped umbels, rather than circular ones. The pith in the branches of the red elderberry isn't white like it is on the edible elder.