Elderberry guide: where to find, health benefits and recipe ideas

Late summer and early autumn are the perfect seasons for heading into the British countryside in search of elderberries. Learn how to identify, where to find, the health benefits and how to cook elderberries with our expert guide.

Published: September 6th, 2022 at 10:00 am
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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 and are a valuable resource for humans and wildlife alike.

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Our expert elderberry guide explores where the fruit grows, when to pick it, its health benefits and recipe ideas.

When are elderberries in season?

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) ripen between August and October, replacing the elderflower clusters seen in earlier in the year in late spring.

What does elderberry look like?

The elderberry is a small purple-black berry which grows in bunches on elder trees.

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). Eaten raw, elderberries have a bitter, tart flavour, but eaten cooked they taste quite different. Raw berries are also 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
Elderflower in bloom

What are the health benefits of elderberries?

Cooked elderberries are known as a natural remedy for colds and flu due to their high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants. They're available in the form of syrup over the counter in natural health shops, but it's also easy to make your own elderberry syrup.

Elderflowers, berries and tree (from left to right) ©Getty

How are elderberries important for wildlife?

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.
Elder trees are an important autumn food source for birds ©Getty

How to forage responsibly

Always be sure you can positively identify any plant before you pick it, and never eat any plant you are unsure of. When foraging, ensure you leave plenty for wildlife.

Here are a couple of key foraging guidelines:

– Seek permission before foraging. In certain areas, plant species will be protected so it is important to do some research and check with the landowner before you start gathering.

– Only pick from areas that have a plentiful supply. Look for areas where you can find food in abundance and then only collect a small amount for personal use. Never completely strip an area as this could damage the species and deny another forager the chance to collect.

– Leave enough for wildlife and avoid damaging habitats. Many animals rely on plants for survival, so never take more than you plan to eat as this could also deny wildlife from a valuable food source. Be mindful about wildlife habitats and avoid disturbing or damaging.

– Never pick protected species or cause permanent damage. Britain’s wild plants are all protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which makes it illegal to dig up or remove a plant. Check the law before you forage or if in doubt, why not take part in a foraging class with an expert and learn the basics.

Elderberry recipes

How to make elderberry syrup

Why not make your own flu-busting elderberry syrup? Simply pick a tub-full of berries on your next trip out, being sure to only pick ripe fruit. Remove the berries from the stalks (use a fork) then add them to a pan with enough water to just cover the fruit. Simmer gently for 15-20 minutes and then strain the contents through a piece of muslin. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and 500g of sugar to each litre of liquid, then bring to the boil again briefly before letting it cool. Dilute to taste as a cordial, or try a teaspoon neat to get a little vitamin boost in the colder months. Store in the fridge.

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Elderberry cordial
Make a flu-busting elderberry cordial to help shift winter colds and flu. (Getty)

How to make elderberry wine

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.

Hedgerow ketchup

Make this easy hedgerow ketchup, which includes elderberries, as a tasty accompaniment to your late summer BBQ.

When is elderflower season?

Elderflowers Sambucus nigra
Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra)/Credit: Getty Images
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Come late spring and summer, elder trees and hedgerows are filled with the sweet scent of fragrant and delicate elderflowers. which can be used to make delicious cordials, cakes and biscuits. Learn more and find easy recipes in elderflower guide.

Authors

Carys MatthewsGroup Digital Editor

Carys is the Group Digital Editor of countryfile.com and discoverwildlife.com. Carys can often be found trail running, bike-packing, wild swimming or hiking in the British countryside.

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