Guys: I am so jazzed.
A few weeks ago, Justin & I were on a walk when I spotted what I thought might be an Elderberry bush. It had big, bouncy umbrella-like clusters of pale green berries buried in these rich, green leaves. A few of the berries had even started to change color, but by-and-large the berries were not ready.
I checked the bush against a plant app, which confirmed my suspicions, but that’s not nearly enough evidence, as the plant apps can be wrong, and I don’t know enough about the plant. So when I got home, I consulted my field guide.
My field guide is pretty general. It’s not very big, and it’s for all of North America. I’d really like to get a more specific field guide to southern New England because I know there are a lot of things missing from this one. In any case, the field guide gave some warnings around the bark, leaves and unripe fruits as “somewhat” toxic, but that the flowers and ripe fruits are excellent and high in vitamin C.
- Habitat: rich, moist soil near water sources
- Shrubby, rounded crown, spreading branches, typically fewer than 13′ high
- Leaves: opposite, featherlike, 6-10″ long with 5-11 leaflets, broader at base
- Leaves: wide, toothed, pointed, dark and shiny green
- Twigs: smooth with prominent with pith
- Fruits: dark, berry-like, rounded, very small (.2″), juicy, 3 seeds, in large clusters
Along the way, I had been reading up online about toxic lookalikes to the Elderberry. According to The Googs, a lot of people confuse Pokeberry with Elderberry, but they don’t look anything alike to me, so that wasn’t a major concern. Another site had mentioned some other type of berry that is toxic, but the berries are larger and the twigs have thorns; further, the site claimed that the toxicity was mild and would probably just give you an upset stomach. Not a huge risk, but I’m also not looking for diarrhea.
The field guide hadn’t mentioned the red stem, but one of the foraging groups I follow did. Someone mentioned that the stem changes to red as the berries are closer to picking. I don’t recall it being a different color, but when I checked the field guide, the flowering stage shows the stem as pale green.
Once I was pretty sure what I had was in fact Elderberry, I posted my findings on one of the better foraging groups, and they confirmed. (Squee!)
I plan to make syrup for the upcoming cold & flu season. Someone on the forums said to freeze the berries on the stem, then when they’re fully frozen, you can smack the berries against a table, and they’ll just fall off. Say no more: the berries are already in a bag in the freezer.
Whenever I forage something, I take special care to not be greedy, especially in the early season or before I’m sure I’ll even like it, so I took only about a net pint of berries just to try them. If we like them, we’ll go on some other river walks to see if we can find other bushes, or just keep an eye on the bush we found so that others can have some if they want. If it’s looking close to the end of season and the bush is still full of berries AND we like them, then we’ll take enough to process and can for the whole winter.
Related foraging note: around the same time we found the Elderberries, we also found a grapevine absolutely LOADED with green fruit. When we went to check on it over the weekend, the fruit had almost completely turned purple, so we harvested a small basket and made grape sauce (a thin jam) out of it. I had read that there is a toxic lookalike to purple grapes called a “Moonseed.” The leaves, the vine, and the fruit all look remarkably similar. Moreover, the vines can grow right next to each other and tangle.
Because this was my first time foraging these grapes from that location, I took extra special care to process them. I checked one grape from each cluster to ensure that it was, in fact, grape. Grapes have pear-shaped seeds, and Moonseed has one large, moon-shaped seed. I did not run across any Moonseed in my inspection, and the sauce is delicious: we scooped small, rustic balls of peanut butter onto a spoon, then dipped the spoon into the sauce as an afternoon snack (like four times).
Foraging side note two: while walking over to get the berries this afternoon, we passed an Autumn Olive which already boasted a few ripe, red berries. We didn’t take any from that tree because they were roadside of a very busy road, but that’s good news! Of the trees we inspected last weekend, the berries were still small and tight, nowhere near green, so that was very exciting. These are my favorite berries to pick in the fall. Justin & I talked about making little grain-free (nut-based) thumbprint cookies and filling them up with that tart, delicious Autumn Olive jam.
I have a feeling this autumn is going to be super nomalicious.