As summer drifts into autumn, elderberries become a common sight alongside Britain’s country lanes, garden verges and woodlands. These small, purple-black berries are found growing in bunches on elder trees (Sambucus nigra) and are a valuable resource for humans and wildlife alike.
Our expert elderberry guide explores this important fruit, delving into its folklore, health benefits, where to find it and recipe ideas.
Elder tree facts
- Elder trees can grow up to 15m tall.
- The trees can live for 60 years.
- Elders are hermaphrodite, which means they have both male and female reproductive parts within the same flower.
- The trees are often mistaken for walnuts tree – yet, unlike the walnut, elders have oppositely arranged leaves.
Elderflowers, berries and tree (from left to right) ©Getty
When are elderberries in season?
Elderberries ripen between August and October, replacing the elderflower clusters seen in earlier in the year in late spring.
Where can I find elderberries?
Elderberry tree in hedgerow ©Getty
Elder trees grow in woodlands, hedgerows, scrub and wasteland. They may also be found along road verges and often crop up in gardens. Their seeds are distributed via animal droppings, so keep an eye out for the tree’s fresh green leaves around rabbit warrens and badger sets – or vice versa.
Can I eat elderberries?
Yes, but they should be cooked first to safely remove the lectin and cyanide (toxins). Raw berries, which are tart, are mildly poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Elder branches, bark and leaves should not be consumed at all.
Elderberries should be cooked before being eaten ©Getty
What are the health benefits of elderberries?
Christian custom depicts the elder as evil, a symbol of sorrow and death and bearer of bad spirits, while pagans believed it to remove harmful spells and induce vivid dreams. Leaves of the tree were once hung in doorways and windows to guard against evil, and the berries – thought to possess antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties – have long been associated with healing.
These days, the berry’s medicinal properties are widely recognised, and it is often harvested in August by opportunistic country folk to help strengthen the immune system and fight cold and flu.
How are elderberries important for wildlife?
Elder trees are an important autumn food source for birds ©Getty
The elder tree as a whole is an important resource for many different species of mammal, insect and bird in the British countryside.
- Flowers – provide nectar for numerous insect species. They are also eaten by small mammals.
- Berries – a valuable food for birds and mammals, such as dormice and bank voles.
- Elder leaves – elder foliage is a nutrient source for moth caterpillars, such as the dot moth, white spotted pug and swallowtail.
Why not create your own flu-busting elderberry cordial? It’s simple and will last the winter. Simply, grab a tub-full of berries on your next trip out, being sure to only pick ripe fruit. Put the elders in a pan and add water to just cover the fruit. Boil for 15 minutes and then strain the contents through muslin. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and 500g of sugar to each litre of liquid, then boil again before allowing to cool. Dilute to taste for a delicious remedy to a winter ailment.
Make a flu-busting elderberry cordial to help shift winter colds and flu. (Getty)
This is a full wine-making recipe and, done well, can produce a red wine good enough to compete with many supermarket wines. Occasionally you will produce something truly exquisite. Just like grapes, elderberries can differ year on year. Some years every tree seems to be weighed down with massive clusters of plump, juicy fruits that all go ripe at the same time. Other years are leaner but elder trees are so abundant you should find enough berries for this recipe.
Make this easy hedgerow ketchup as a tasty accompaniment to your summer BBQ.