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 where the fruit grows, when to pick it, its health benefits and recipe ideas.
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?
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.
More related content:
- Elderflower guide – where to find it, how to identify and recipe ideas
- Monthly foraging guide – what’s in season, where to find it, and how to forage responsibly
- July foraging guide: best foods to find and recipe ideas
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.
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.
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.
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, which includes elderberries, as a tasty accompaniment to your late summer BBQ.