From forest to the Freezer, the Blue Elderberry is one of our favorite wild fruits to harvest. We begin visiting our favorite shrubs from mid-summer through September when the ripe fruit hangs in clusters from long branches waiting to pick. With buckets and hooked poles in hand, these are our tips for successful Elderberry harvesting.
When to Harvest Ripe Elderberries
Ripe blue elderberries are ready to harvest from August to mid-September. During which time berries will have a chance to ripen and sweeten up.
An example of ripening Elderberry is the light dusting of wild yeast on the fruit. This indicates the berries will soon be ready to pick. Also, the berry will soften to the touch as it matures to ripeness.
Where to find Elderberry shrubs to harvest
In Oregon, Sambuscus cerulea is an interior variety that bears clusters of small bluish berries when ripe.
This species of blue elderberry grows upcountry in the interior valleys from the Pacific Coast along riparian zones that are open to sunlight along streams with good drainage. However, we also forage for blue elderberries in drier habitats such as Northern California's Klamath mountains, gathering elderberries from low elevations to higher each summer.
We find the heaviest fruit-bearing shrubs at these lower elevations. Most importantly for the hunter-gatherer, you can harvest elderberries all across the US.
How to Harvest
The American elder can get quite tall for a shrub. We harvest from individual shrubs that are nearly 12 ft. in height. They have long and round semi-fragile stalks that sprout from a central core. As the stalks grow taller, they tend to bend outward, especially when loaded with fruit.
The stems and branches have a soft pithy core that will break when bent to the extreme.
Use a Hook Stick for Harvesting
Years ago, I cut a Rhododendron limb with a corresponding branch that made a hook. In the photo, I can hook the flexible branches that grow the berry clusters, and bring them within reach for harvesting ripe elderberries.
If the elderberry stalks aren't too big in diameter, we can pull the fruit-bearing branches down low to reach them. But bending the fragile stalks too hard can cause them to break.
Cutting the berry clusters
We use our thumbnails to cut the berry clusters from the thin green stems and garden scissors also work well. Bring a clean 5-gallon bucket with a handle for collecting. The handle makes it easy to load and carry the elderberries.
Sort Elderberries to freeze or dry
Pour the berries from the 5-gallon bucket into a cardboard box for sorting. Remove any sticks, leaves, or insects that inadvertently ended up in the bucket.
The easy trick to remove berries from stems
Christine, who makes our elderberry syrup developed an easy trick that saves tons of time to remove the small fresh berries from the stems.
- Put the sorted elderberries attached to the stems in a paper sack.
- Place the sack into the freezer.
- Freeze the berries.
After the elderberries have frozen hard, take the sack from the freezer and give it a few hard shakes. Pour the contents back into the cardboard box to sort. Off come the berries from the stems just like that, making the sorting process simple with no hassle.
Frozen blue Elderberries
Elderberry pole hook
Any long stick or a light pole with a hook will work for pulling the elderberry branches within reach. Here is a photo of the harvesting pole I use.
To sum it up
A few things to know about the Sambuscus cerulea berries.
- Always cook the berries before eating.
- The elderberries can cause nausea when eaten raw.
- Drying alone does not fully rid the fruit of toxins, but cooking dried or fresh foraged berries does!
- The leaves and bark contain more of the offending Hydrocyanic Acid than the berries.
- Last but not least you will want to try these yummy syrup and pie recipes here: The Amazing Blue Elderberry.