Forage: Identifying Elderberries

Published on August 17th 2018
In spring you probably will have noticed all the elderflowers Sambucus nigra flowering away merrily, well now it's time to return to those trees you identified and start checking whether they are starting to fruit.

What to look for when identifying Elderberries...

The leaf:
  • The leaf is compound and pinnate (which means feather-shaped) with 5 or 7 leaflets.
  • The edge of each leaflet is serrated (toothed).
  • The leaf also has quite a distinctive smell.
The Fruit
  • Flat heads full of tiny dark purple berries
Note: The flowers and berries are the only edible part of the plant and they're slightly toxic, so you shouldn't eat them raw. Cooking them will remove the toxic chemical.
Collecting the berries
  • The berries are best picked on a dry, warm sunny day.
  • Remember to select a location away from pollutants.
  • Use a pair of scissors or snips and remove the fruiting heads, look for plump and glossy fruits.
  • Use a wide bucket or bag as then they can just drop in without losing too many berries. When you get home you can tease the berries off the flower stems with a fork or by hand.


...leave some fruit on the plant for birds. This is more important this year as the Elderberry plants are fruiting earlier and birds will need to feed up for lean times ahead.

Please don't confuse with these poisonous plants!

Ivy Hedrea helix is one of the most common climbers that pretty much everybody is familiar with. When ivy has been pollinated, it produces poisonous black berries from its flower heads.
Tutsan St. John's Wort Hypericum androsaemum is a shrub-like plant that's at home in forests and hedgerows. It has green berries that turn into a purply black colour over time (passing through a red stage in between). Depite the fact tutsan berries are sometimes present in herbal medicines, they're actually toxic and shouldn't be eaten.

Mythology and Folklore

It was believed that if you wish to take parts of the Elder tree you must ask permission from the Elder Mother and if you did not ask she would seek her revenge.
To ask permission would involve making an offering to the tree, kneeling with the head bowed and reciting the following:
“Lady Ellhorn give me of thy wood,
And I will give thee of mine,
When I become a tree”
As I said in my Elderflower article earlier this year, I haven't seen anyone doing this but keep your eyes peeled you just might!

Please share your favourite elderberry recipes with us if you get out on a forage this week.

If you like this story and want to read more, download the Candide app and head over to the Discover section.

Remeber to make sure you know what you're picking, and if in doubt, leave it out!

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