I planted a couple of dozen elderberry trees two years ago. They’ve grown rapidly and produced tons of berries this summer. When I planted them, I read that they were a very good medicinal plant to have around and they were essentially maintenance and pest free. As a bonus they produce beautiful flowers and are beneficial to birds and pollinators.
Black Elderberry Tree
The trees have turned out to be maintenance and pest free. I think every homestead should carve out some space for elderberries, even if the berries are only ever used by wildlife. This summer I wanted to try to find the easiest way to harvest and use the healthy berries. Before I get into that, let’s talk about the benefits.
The medicinal benefits are staggering. It really is an amazing plant. It’s wide range of benefits can be attributed to its high anti-oxidant properties and high vitamin C content. It has been used successfully throughout history as a cold and flu treatment. A study in the Journal of International Medical Research revealed that flu patients that were given an elderberry extract recovered in 3.1 days versus 7 days for those given the placebo.
It can be used to help with allergies, weight loss, diabetes, and arthritis. The versatile berry has been used as a diuretic and to help with bowel activity, whether constipation or diarrhea and as an anti-inflammatory to help with arthritis and general wellness.
I think as a society we’ve lost touch with the medicine cabinets of our gardens. There are many plants that offer benefits that are superior to drug stores. We need to start growing plants like elderberry, but we also need to learn how to harvest and use them.
Growing the tree is very easy. The tree loves wet conditions, so place it in a wet area and it’ll take off. I planted them in many areas of my property, some wet, some not, and they’ve all done well. They’ve grown particularly well on my swales.
Harvesting and using the power-packed berry is a different story. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that. For me, and most people time is usually the problem, so I wanted to figure out the quickest and simplest method for harvesting enough for Denise and I and to give some to friends.
I did some research into elixirs and juicing and drying. I ultimately decided that drying seemed to be the simplest method. I may ultimately be wrong, as I haven’t tried the other methods, but drying worked fine. Below are the steps I took.
- Cut the elderberry clusters off the plant. It’s important that the berries are ripe. I have black elderberries, and the berries are dark black and juicy when ripe.
- Remove the berries from the stems. When I was thinking about the harvest, I thought this was going to be a huge pain in the ass. The berries are tiny and there’s so many of them. I read about people putting their elderberries in the freezer, then pulling them out and as they thaw the berries fall off. I also read about people rubbing the berries against ½ inch hardware cloth over a bowl, and the berries just come off and fall in the bowl. I tried the hardware cloth and that was a bust. I also talked to someone who had tried the freezing method and he said that didn’t work either. Ultimately, I simply pulled them off by hand. I found that you do not need to take them off one by one. If you lightly tug at the clusters of berries with your fingers they will fall off. It was actually easy, low stress work. I watched a movie while I was doing it. It was a bit time-consuming but it wasn’t too bad.
- Once de-stemmed, I lined my dehydrator trays with wax paper. This is a must, because you don’t want to stain the tray inserts. I placed the elderberries on the trays. This was a bit tricky, because the round berries tend to roll all over the place, and they do stain, so you do not want even one runaway berry. I carefully made a small pile in the middle of each tray and then spread them out from there. It wasn’t too bad, and you do want a single layer, but it’s OK if they’re touching, they will still dry fine.
Elderberries Spread on Waxpaper
- I ran my Excalibur dehydrator for two days on the fruit temperature 135 degrees for two days. They were plenty dry after that time. You may be able to shorten the time. I wasn’t checking them too regularly.
Elderberries in the Dehydrator
- At this point, I had these tiny dried berries on wax paper and I needed to put them into my food saver bags. I started to use a big spoon to gather them, but that was dumb. I was able to pull up the edges of the wax paper and I folded the edges to hold the berries. Then I put the wax paper in my food saver bags, allowing one end to open, quickly dumping the contents into the bag. That worked really well.
- I vacuum packed the dried elderberries, using several bags, because I won’t be using a lot at one time.
Elderberries Vacuum Packed
Fresh ripe elderberries don’t taste particularly good in my opinion, but they are palatable. Dried elderberries taste slightly better than fresh. Denise and I have used them in several ways. She puts them in her tea and we’ve put them in salads and with fruit. I put them with raspberries and honey and it was pretty good. I think the key is you have to have the honey as a sweetener. If it was just with the raspberries, it would not taste great. Also, in a vegetable salad, especially with a sweeter dressing, they taste fine. Denise says they’re good in tea as well, again especially if you use honey as a sweetener. So give them a try, they’re easy to grow, easy to harvest, and the health benefits are many.
Elderberries in Tea
Elderberries, Raspberries, and Honey
~ Phil Williams
Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com. He is also the author of numerous books, most recently, Fire the Landscaper and Farmer Phil's Permaculture. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.