Wildcrafted Elderberry Syrup
How to forage sustainably & ethically
It is 8:30 Monday morning and I have a different sort of commute. As the sun crests over the peaks, I walk onward and upward into the forest. The distant sound of cars dissipate behind me while the crunch of my step on trail elevates me higher - a familiar anthemic soundtrack that follows me into the wild.
A few weeks back, I discovered a wild elderberry shrub heavy with ripening berries. Today, I have returned to see if Nature will allow me to harvest. Oftentimes as I walk in the woods, and around town, I acknowledge the familiar faces of so many wild edible and medicinal plants. Many that were once cherished by our ancestors and the native tribes are now considered weeds or forgotten altogether. The average citizen would be surprised to discover the abundance this land readily offers - if only they knew what to look for. In alley ways, along roadsides, in the cracks of our cement, in our backyards (in addition to the undeveloped places) lies a whole host of medicinal and edible wild plants.
Foraging and wildcrafting is an art and a practice in connecting with the land. The process of learning about plants, their uses, and the intricacies of the ecosystem is a slow process that rewards the pursuer with both tangible and intangible abundance. For those willing to walk the path less traveled, wild foraging is a journey that nourishes the body and re-wilds the soul.
How to Identify Elderberry
Wild elderberry can be found in open, usually wet areas at the margins of lakes, rivers, marshes and ditches across North America, Canada, and Europe. It is also a common backyard plant, and non-wild shrubs can be purchased from garden nurseries. Elderberry is a many-trunked shrub with varieties that can range between ten and thirty feet tall. The leafs are serrated and oblong shaped, with an alternating and compound arrangement of 5-7 leaves per stem. The flowers are fragrant and white, and grow in large clusters. The small berrylike fruits start out green then turn dark blue and purplish with a white powdery finish (which is a naturally occurring yeast powder called ‘bloom’). When especially ripe, they look black.
Both the flowers and the ripe berries are edible when cooked and they are not to be eaten raw or when unripe. A handful of berries eaten raw can cause nauseousness. All other parts of the plant are poisonous! Never eat a plant that you cannot 100% identify as edible. Because many poisonous plants resemble common edible plants, I recommend training and learning in person from a professional before experimenting.
Sustainable and Ethical Wildcrafting
Sustainably and ethically harvesting wild elderberry (as with any other plant) requires care and respect for Nature’s workings. Each time I harvest from the wild I leave more than half of what is ready. I must know in advance if the plant is endangered, threatened, native, invasive, in abundance, lacking in vitality or thriving. I must understand the complexity of the plant’s ecological relationships, and what parts of the plant are safe or poisonous during different times in the life cycle. I need to know if land rights allow me to harvest, and how my actions will impact the biosphere. I also need to be mindful about my intended use of the plant so as not to culturally appropriate or disrespect the traditions of marginalized groups.
Lastly, it is important to connect with the plant energy itself and ask it permission to harvest. While this practice might sound far-out, it actually helps us develop our primal and intuitive communication with the land. It’s a practice that champions our respect for the plant and the Earth. I’ll run my hands along the leaves and stem, and ask in my heart if I have permission to harvest. Then, I listen. Usually, total quietness, a void of feeling, or a negative feeling indicates that the plant doesn’t want to be harvested - and I must respect that even if I feel let down. Other times, if the plant responds with a “yes”, it will indicate with some sort of sign, such as a sudden breeze that causes it sway and show off it’s beauty. I might also receive a sudden feeling of happiness and an answer in my heart that feels good.
With food and other resources so accessible in my modern community, it is my responsibility to consider all of these details before harvesting. It is best to withhold from foraging and wildcrafting with herbs and plants altogether if any concern rises during this evaluation. It is important to remember that a wild harvest is a gift, not a right.
All things considered, before I break out my sheers I vocalize a sacred prayer as an offering to the elderberry shrub, and mother nature, in gratitude for allowing me to take from the bounty. I take only what I need and always leave something in return which sometimes involves spreading seeds, offering a song or prayer, or leaving a natural gift of some sort.
With this gift of ripe wild elderberries that mother nature has provided, I crafted a homemade immune-boosting syrup that will help keep me and my family healthy during cold and flu season. I adjusted Mountain Rose Herbs original recipe to accommodate the quantities of my small harvest.
Here’s my recipe:
Wildcrafted Elderberry Syrup
Serving size: 1 TBS per day during sniffle season
Makes about 3 1/2 cups with vodka (2 1/2 cups without)
2 Cups Sustainably Foraged Fresh Elderberries
2 Cups Cold Purified Water
1 ½ tsp Organic Dried Ginger Root
½ Stick Cinnamon
1 Cup Raw, Local Honey (maple syrup or agave to substitute for vegan/infant-friendly recipe)
1 Cup Vodka (optional to increase shelf life)
Rinse berries to remove powder.
Separate berries from stems and other plant material.
Combine berries and herbs with cold water in a pot and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and allow herbs to simmer 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove from heat and let steep 1 hour.
Strain berries and herbs using a funnel overlaid with doubled cheesecloth.
Squeeze cheesecloth to extract remaining juice (careful, liquid will likely still be hot!). Discard used herbs in compost.
Once liquid has cooled to just above room temperature, add honey and stir to incorporate.
If using vodka, add here and stir until well combined.
Bottle in sterilized glass. I reused an old maple syrup jar.
Store in fridge.