Wild Elderberry Adventures (Kinda)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Wow Elise, this is fun. Let's never do it again."

That pretty much summed up the experience. Fun. Educational. Slightly irritating. Still the day's trials had had an intoxicating effect on both Elise and me.

Hank had warned us that elderberry picking was a bitch. He explained clearly that gathering them requires you to hike through brier patches and swaths of star thistle colonies that no sane creature would traverse. This then would be followed by the finger puckering, back aching, delicate picking of the berries. The berries are so small that it would require the nimblest hands and keenest of eyes of the tiniest fairy tale creatures to pick them efficiently.

My hands were raw, my neck twisted into some inhuman Gordian knot (which a seasoned masseuse later that day would comment on saying, "I may need to get a guy with bigger hands to do this."), and my clothes and canvas bag were now splotchy with indigo juices. Fine indicators of work well done, but a pain in the butt no less.

"Hank did warn us," said Elise, "but I don't think the vast pains of this were thoroughly communicated."
-It's hard not to crush these in my long, slightly effeminate fingers.-

After reading Hank's post about elderberry picking, both Elise and I were overcome with the desire to attack this project ourselves. If for no other reason but to give the whole thing a shot. Culinary adventurers we were! Braving the local Sacramento parks, filled with bikers in neon pants who give no warning before they zoom past you at supersonic speeds barely missing a deadly collision with you. Facing and countless bloodthirsty ticks! Blistering sun! Beware our outdoorsiness!

Yeah, I didn't buy it either, but you'd be surprised what two curious cooks will go through for a Sunday project.

Of course, you may be curious way all the fuss for elderberries. Elderberries are tiny little stone fruits that grown in bunches on, surprise surprise, elderberry trees. The flowers are often used for various liquors and syrups. The berries are generally considered a superfood; they're a natural anti-viral, often used in influenza HIV medications and studies. They're also crazy packed with the antioxidants. Plus the flavor is a funky and tart that echoes wine grapes and blueberries.

Elderberries are also the size of a pinhead. Literally. Not much bigger than this capital "O". As such you have to carefully rake these Lilliputian fruits off their itsy-bitsy branches. Otherwise you squish them in your clumsy paws, squirting their bright innards all over everything.

Armed with clippers and canvas bags we made our way through the park, snipping elderberry branches and tossing them into our hoarded load. As we marched in and out of little paths and dark natural growth alleys where local teenagers probably smoke meth we hunted down trees, always looking for the little blue bundles hanging in the air.

Over the river, through the woods. Around the brambles. Under the thickets. Across the fire ants' nest. Watching for rattlers. Dodging the falling ticks. Fighting our way through growth. Balancing on ledges. Hippity hoppity. We snipped bunch after bunch after bunch after bunch.

Soon our bags were heavy with fruit and we trudged our way back to the car. It was halfway through my rattlesnake story when I felt something wet. I looked to my side. My hip was splotched in indigo elderberry juice. The ripe berries, combined with gravity and their own weight, plus with constriction of the bag had begun to press the juice from the minuscule balls. It was almost shocking how much there was, but as they say, strength in small numbers.


Back at Elise's house we had begun the picking party. This party, physically, was a drag. Seriously, I was ready to bribe small neighborhood children to come help in some Tom Sawyer-ish scheme, the berries my white picket fence. I think I almost convinced Elise to take part in this.

Did I also mention the ticks, spiders, and other assorted creatures we encountered in the bundles of berries? You would look down to suddenly find many pairs of legs crawling over the berries, up the bowl, or worse yet up your arm. All kinds of freaky fun there. Elise and I both learned we can squeal like five year old girls. That's stuff you can bond over.

That's not to say it wasn't a party. We had a ball of a time telling stories, gossiping, trading jokes, laying out the plans for our futures. It was a great time to just chill.

By the end of things, by which I mean two hours later, we had eight pounds of elderberries. Do you have any idea what that looks like? Damned impressive is what.
-This is what is technically called a crazy load of elderberries.-

At this point I had to bid Elise adieu. I went to a massage appointment. I had a coupon and never had one before, plus after our small wilderness excursion I pretty well felt like I needed one. Elise went about cooking the berries down with some sugar and straining them. She the processed elderberry slurry into jelly and syrup. (Elise is a very good friend to me. She also took these awesome pictures.)

Have you had elderberry jelly or syrup? Think of the darkest, richest port wine you've ever tasted. Now make it ever darker and richer than that, and add a slight tartness to the back of it. Yeah... that's about it. Amazing stuff. Over pancakes, waffles, vanilla ice cream, some of the syrup with a glass of gin and tonic. I plan to use some on a wild duck that Hank gave me. Oh yes, I will be eating and drinking well.

Overall, is the pain and suffering worth it? Yes. Very much so. At least to me. But the outdoors and I have a very love - hate relationship (Boy Scouts made me love nature and hate it all the same. Hiking, king snakes, outdoor cooking = good. Canoeing, fire ants, morning frost in a tent = bad.).

So, yes, I'll go next year. I'll go because the results are worth the trouble, thorns, and ticks. I'll go because you don't do elderberry picking or processing alone. You do it with friends, you make a game of it, you catch up as you pluck, and laugh as you hike through the woods. In the end you have great stories to share, a greater bond, and damn good jelly.


  1. I have been warned by my grandfather and I have to this day listened to his advice. Reading your account, I am slightly changing my mind to finally brave the cons of the experience if it means homemade elderberry syrup which I love.
    Great writing Garrett! Want to read it again!

  2. Why do I keep thinking of "Arsenic and Old Lace?" That was my first and lifelong reference to elderberries. Hard to believe something so yummy is so good for you!

  3. If you just pick whole fruit clusters, peduncle (twigs) and all, then freeze them, the fruit come off very easily. If you can find a botanist with a sieve containing 2mm aperatures, the job gets even easier, since the berries fall through and the twigs stay on top.

  4. Nice one, Garrett! I could have helped ya, had you called me beforehand -- smaller, PLASTIC bags so they don't crush the berries (keep them open for air), and there is an easier way to pick by hand; it's a kind of gentle raking across the stems. Goes pretty fast.

    Oh, and Sarah: That freezing technique only works if you process a small number of berries at a time. If the frozen berries thaw, you're screwed. It does work, but you need to be careful.

    OK, so now here's the question, Garrett: If you help pick, I will make a batch of elderberry wine. You game?

  5. We used to pick wild blueberries in the north country of Michigan. Delish. We could barely keep enough to bring back to Mother to make her pie- but it was worth it.

  6. It's also worth going out in spring and using the flowers to make elderflower cordial. Basically soak the flowers in hot water with a little lemon zest for a day and then add lots of sugar, it's easy and delicious. The syrup can be used over ice cream or dilute with more water for a drink. Numerous detailed instructions are on the web. As a more ambitious project the flowers can also be made into wine and it's the most delicious and delicate beverage!

  7. I'm just happy to hear there were no vicious mantis attacks.

  8. I was jealous of the chicken killing outing, but not so much the elderberry escapade!

    Great post, Garrett! It had me smiling.

  9. I want to hear about getting bit by a rattlesnake, next!

  10. I pushed mine through a food mill. Very messing-throw those old cloths away!!! Beyond the stains that ensued it was the stinging nettles that ultimately did me in!

  11. I've heard that they make "elderberry picking combs" that let you "comb" the ripe berries out of the clusters without having to nit-pick by hand.

    Food for thought next year. We have a ton of the trees growing by the roadside in Florida too.

  12. I must say, even though you are warning not to do this it is something I'd love doing. I know you say it can be dreadful, and painful... but in the end the jam sounds like it would be truly worth it... and the syrup. Tasty!

    Going to have to hunt out next year for some of these trees, hopefully somewhere around here has them.

    Bill M.

  13. It has been a few years since I have picked elderberries, but, but for most of 30 years, I used to pick them annually.

    You would do well to drive around while they are still in bloom to locate the bushes - and then strike quickly when they ripen.

    If you fool around and delay too long the act of picking, the birds will do it for you. But, then they plant them as well - whih is why you most often find elderberried underneath power lines.

    Wild asparagus, poke plants and others get planted/fertilized in the same way.

    I used to make elderberry jelly every year and give it to relatives and friends by the case. Of course I kept enough for my private use - on toast.

    There is no other fruit out there that tastes the same as elderberries.

    When I was a kid, my family was very poor and we lived off the land. There always seemed to be something ready to pick.

    I still like to have a good mess of dandelion salad about once per year.

    I used to dig a lot of sassafrass roots in the spring and make tea with it - tasted a LOT like root beer.

    Back to the elderberries. When picking them, I usually took the whole cluster instead of picking the dozens of berries individually from each cluster. I have always meant to go back the next year to see if the bush produces after the clusters being broken off.

    Sometimes I would use a "pick" comb (the kind that started out being used for "afro" style hair back in the 70's) to harvest the berries from the clusters.

    If I picked the clusters, I would still use the pick for getting them off at home.

    If you are going to make jelly, be prepared to buy a LOT of sugar, because it takes a lot. I seem to remember that around half the weight of the jelly was sugar.

    There is a fancy subdivision near me that has "Elderberry Lane" as the entrance road. No elderberry bushes in sight, however.

    I have thought numerous time about changing that. I really like planting elderberries at night in cases such as this.

    I used to plant the seeds all over the place but have not gone back to see the fruit of my labors.


  14. I forgot to mention something on my previous post. After you crush the berries, you need to put the mash into cheesecloth or something similar and hang it up wuth a large kettle under it to catch all the juice.

    Let the juice gradually seep into the container (24 hours) and then throw away all the seeds, skin, etc. You can use the filter material over and over if you want to clean it.

    Just like when dealing with other staining fuits/nuts, be sure to wear rubber gloves or your hands will be stained for days. I have done this more than once with elderberries and Black Walnuts.

    Lastly, it works better to extract all the juice by twisting the cheesecloth bag real hard. This can squeeze out a surprizingly large amount the the precious juice.


  15. I can pick over 600#/hr. A pruning hook with a fish net attached below it.
    You cut the whole cluster and steam or press.


Hey, you're leaving a comment! That's pretty darn cool, so thanks. If you have any questions or have found an error on the site or with a recipe, please e-mail me and I will reply as soon as possible.

Vanilla Garlic All rights reserved © Blog Milk Powered by Blogger