Sunday, July 21, 2013

Red Elderberry: Experiment #1

Every year when the Red Elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) ripen, I marvel at their beauty and quantity. Clusters of bright red fruit cascade from black stems and dark green foliage with branch bending abundance. Resembling a northern version of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), they seem better suited to ripening during Christmas-time than the heat of the summer, yet ripen they do by the first hot days of summer. It is hard to ignore a wild edible that grows so commonly as Red Elderberry, but most wild food books caution against eating the berries, despite traditional use by nearly all the Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest. On several occasions I have cooked and sampled the fruit, but until recently, my enthusiasm never lasted beyond a tentative taste of the cooked fruit. This year, however, I resolved to carry my experiments through to completion, and what follows is the first in a series of attempts to try and crack the palatability secretes of Red Elderberry. But first, a little background:

The genus name Sambucus comes from the Latin word sackbut or more properly, sabb’ka, which was the name of a little known ancient Aramaic stringed instrument supposedly made from elderberry wood ( 2013). In the middle ages, the word was also used to describe a wind instrument made from hollow elderberry stalks (Wikipedia 2013). The species epithet racemosa refers to the clustered flowers. Red Elderberry wood is used for flutes, funnels, and bows. The flowers and fruit are cooked and eaten or made into wine or syrup. While the roots, bark, and leaves are poisonous, they have medicinal value in small doses as emetics. The fruit have been used for centuries by numerous cultures as an herbal remedy for rheumatism, which may explain the common name “elderberry.”

Opposite buds emerging from a second year twig
Cone-shaped Red Elderberry flower clusters
Red Elderberry is a woody perennial forming bushes that are 12-20 feet tall. Young stems grow quickly, often 1-2 feet per year and have hairless to sparsely hairy green bark with white warts (lenticels) in the early season and darkens to tan-purple with grey-orange warts by fruiting time. The bark assumes a grey-brown color with the passing years and the warts grow larger until the bark loses all signs of smoothness in old age. Stems have a pithy core that makes the wood brittle when young but as the stem ages the outer wood increases thickness while the pith remains nearly the same size, making older branches considerably stronger than younger ones. Leaves emerge from large yellow-green to purple-red buds comprised of several pairs of large scales. Leaf scars are connect around the circumference of the twig. Leaves are pinnately compound with 5-7 lanceolate leaflets that have acuminate tips and serrated margins. Small white flowers are born in upright to drooping cone shaped clusters (panicles) in April and early May. The fruit changes from green to orange, ripening to a bright red by the end of June. Berries (drupes) are about 3/16” wide, spherical to egg-shaped, with 2-5 seed (nutlets) that are up to 1/8” long and 1/16” wide. Red Elderberries thrive in our moist mild climates throughout nearly all of the forested Pacific Northwest. Look for them in forests and forest margins from sea level to subalpine.

Flat-topped Blue Elderberry flower clusters
Red Elderberry can readily be distinguished from Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) by its flowers and fruit. The flowers and fruit of Red Elderberry are in cone-shaped clusters whereas those of Blue Elderberry are flat-topped. Red Elderberry also flowers in the spring and fruits in the summer whereas Blue Elderberry flowers in the summer and fruits in the fall. For those that like to test their wintertime elderberry identification skills, notice that the young stems of Red Elderberry are purplish grey whereas those of Blue Elderberry are orangish grey.

Red elderberries were traditionally harvested and processed for food by virtually all the Native American groups throughout the plant's range in the Pacific Northwest (Gunther 1945; Turner 1995) for several thousands of years (Losey et al. 2003). Berry laden branches were bent to the ground using hooked sticks and entire berry clusters were broken off and placed in baskets. When several baskets were full, the berries were stripped off of their stems and steamed or boiled in bentwood boxes, small canoes, or skunk cabbage lined pit ovens for several hours. The cooked berries were then spread out onto skunk cabbage leaves to dry above a hot fire or in the sun to make berry cakes (fruit leather), which was often stored until the winter before being consumed (Boas 1921; Gill 1984). Though abundant, elderberry fruit was considered second rate and was often mixed as a bulking agent with better tasting berries. During the historic period many Native Americans steamed Red Elderberries in steel pots, sweetened the fruit with sugar, and canned them in glass jars (Turner 1995). Red Elderberries are very seedy and the Kwakwaka’wakw, who generally believed it was rude to drink water during or directly after a feast, made an exception for Red Elderberries so that people could rinse the seeds out of their mouth (Boas 1921, pgs 564-566). Today few people eat Red Elderberries on account of their slightly bitter-pungent flavor.
More elderberries than we know what to do with!

Removing the stems
De-stemmed fruit
Simmering fruit
This year, the first Red Elderberries began to fully ripen in the middle of July. Katrina and I plucked off entire berry clusters and quickly filled two grocery bags. We put our berries in the freezer for a couple days with the hope that the frozen stems would come off more easily (which is the case with Blue Elderberry). Unfortunately, the frozen Red Elderberry stems turned out to be brittle, so we allowed the berries to thaw before removing the stems[1]. Once all the stems were removed we boiled the fruit in a pot with 1 cup of water until the fruit began to juice, and then reduced the juice on low heat for several hours until the pan began to dry out. Then we ran the berries through a fruit mill to separate the seeds from the pulp. The abundance of seeds caused the fruit strainer to bind, so I loosened the screen to allow more space between the auger and the screen. Approximately ¼ of the seeds were crushed into meal and pushed through the screen but we did our best to separate the seed meal from the pulp. I wasn’t keen on eating the seed pulp as some studies suggest that the toxic compounds are concentrated in the seeds. Archaeological recovery of aggregations of elderberry seeds suggests that Native Americans were removing the seeds, but aside from spitting them out at the time of consumption (Boas 1921, pg. 566) a mechanism for removing the small seeds isn't known (Losey et al. 2003). After all the fruit was pulped we sweetened half with ½ cup of brown sugar, and left the other half unsweetened before spreading the pulp onto food dehydrator sheets and dehydrating them for 12 hours. 


Straining the seeds
Our finished fruit leather is a dark purple with a flexible nature and oily texture. While the flavor isn’t great, it is much better than my previous, halfhearted experiments. Initially, the flavor is nice but the aftertaste has a difficult-to-describe pungency that I don’t like. We packaged and froze the fruit leather in the hope that the flavor will improve with storage, which isn’t an unreasonable suspicion given the pervasiveness of this practice among Native Americans.

Finished Red Elderberry fruit leather
My fruit leather will mellow in the freezer for several months, but I have already been plotting my next Red Elderberry experiment. Besides storage, a few ethnographies also mention soaking the cooked fruit in water, and I want to see if the water removes the disagreeable flavors. While working with the Puyallup and Nisqually, Marian Smith (1940, pg. 148) noted that after Red Elderberries were boiled they were, “put into loosely woven baskets which had been well lined with maple leaves. The basket was carefully covered with the same kind of leaves and submerged in a running stream. It took about a month for the berries to cure and be ready to eat. When finished they formed a thick paste ‘as yellow as butter.’ After the basket was opened it had to be kept in the water and the paste was used regularly until it was gone.” Contrary to other ethnographies that ascribe marginal flavor to Red Elderberry, Smith goes on to say “Elderberry paste was mixed with other dried berries to heighten their flavor.” Albert Reagan (1934, pg. 56) documented a similar method of storing (or treating?) Red Elderberries among the Hoh and Quileute. He wrote, “The cooked product is wrapped in skunk-cabbage leaves and buried in the muck in some swampy place, to be dug up when needed.” While cool temperatures and low oxidation rates in submerged environments provide the most likely explanation for this practice, it is conceivable that water storage was a desirable means of leaching out bad tasting constituents in the cooked berries, or slightly fermenting the fruit.

Water storage of Red Elderberries was also practiced in other parts of the Pacific Northwest. According to elders interviewed by Nancy Turner and Randy Bouchard (1976, pg. 81) the Squamish also stored Red Elderberries in water. The berries were cooked until they formed a “molasses-like mass” and placed in a special red cedar basket called tl’pat which was anchored underwater. When the berries were needed, they were pulled up, the required amount removed, and the remainder re-submerged. August Jack concisely describes the process in an interview with Major Mathews (1955, pg. 10): “Elderberry put in sack, you know Indian sack; put sack in creek so clean water run over them and keep them fresh. By and bye get sack out of creek, take some berry out, put sack back again (also quoted in Turner and Bouchard 1976).” The Skagit similarly employed this method, as described by McCormick Collins (1974, pg. 57), “the women might preserve [Red Elderberries] by wrapping them in maple leaves and putting them in a hole dug in wet sand.”  The Kwakwaka’wakw produced also an elderberry paste by soaking the cooked elderberries, but rather than storing the berries in water for several weeks, dried berries were only soaked in water for the duration of four winter ceremonial songs, at which point they were mixed into a paste by hand, and eaten.

For my next Red Elderberry experiment, I will emulate the more recent traditional method of preparing Elderberries and can the cooked berries.

Warning: The roots, wood, bark, leaves, and to a lesser extent, the raw flowers and fruit of Red Elder berry contain cyanogenic glycosides and should not be eaten (Turner and Szczawinski 1991). 


Boas, Franz 1921. Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, based on data collected by George Hunt. Bureau of American Ethnology, 35th Annual Report, part 1. 1913-14. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

Collins, McCormick J. 1974. Valley of the Spirits, the Upper Skagit Indians of Western Washington. Monograph 56, the American Ethnological Society, University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Curtis, Edward 1915. The North American Indian, vol 10: The Kwakiutl. Accessed July 15, 2013.

Gill, Steven 1984. Ethnobotany of the Makah People, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Paper presented to the 7th Annual Ethnobiology Conference, Seattle WA.

Gunther, Erna 1945. Ethnobotany of Western Washington, the Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Losey, Robert L, Nancy Stenholm, Patty Whereat-Phillips, and Helen Vallianatos 2003. Exploring the use of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) fruit on the southern Northwest Coast of North America. Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol 30.

Mathews, Major J.S. 1955. Conversations with Khahtsahlano, 1932-1954. Compiled by the City Archivist, Vancouver BC.

Reagan, Albert 1934. Plants used by the Hoh and Quileute Indians. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, Vol 37.

Smith, Marian 1940. The Puyallup-Nisqually. Columbia University Press, New York NY.

Turner, Nancy J. 1995. Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. UBC Press, Vancouver BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Adam F. Szczawinski 1991. Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America. Timber Press, Portland OR.

Turner, Nancy J. and Randy Bouchard 1976. Squamish Ethnobotany (unpublished manuscript).

Wikipedia search “elder mother” Accessed July 15, 2013.

Wikipedia search “elderberry folklore” Accessed July 15, 2013.

[1] According to Edward Curtis (1915, pg. 40) the Kwakwaka’wakw did not remove the stems before cooking Red Elderberries. Rather, they cooked the fruit until it was soft enough to easily separate the stems.
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  1. Nice writeup! After tasting red elderberries myself, I was always a little doubtful about historic accounts of their use, but your theories on processing make sense.

  2. "Cyanogenic" = Cyanide producing?


  3. This is a wonderful site!
    I'm a Puget Sounder born and raised and have always had an affinity for native edible plants, especially berries like red huckleberry and salal. I've wondered about red elderberry. Like you I've heard conflicting reports but figured since the first peoples ate them they must be okay.
    If you were to refer to other foods, flowers, substances, etc. how would you describe the flavor, beyond simply bitter/pungent? Blue elderberry wood, for example, strikes me as smelling somewhat like nightshade vine. Salal reminds me of evergreen huckleberry mixed with concord grape, with a kind of gamey must or spice, if you will, at the end. I've heard about the mild "yuckyness" of red elderberry, but do you think it has potential as a base for complex sauces, perhaps combined with other native ingredients like yerba Buena or wild ginger? Do you think it would mesh well with baked camas?


  4. The flavor reminds me a little of European Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus). We are trying to imagine uses for Red Elderberry that are akin to tomato sauce.

  5. I just read that the Interior Salish living in the Fraser River Canyon traditionally marinade salmon in Red Elderberries.

    1. Hi T.Abe Lloyd. I am working with he Cowichan Valley Regional District on some signage for a riparian restoration project - Busy Place Creek. Some native species in the area are Red Elderberry. Would you be willing to share one of your red elderberry photos, with the guarantee that we would give you the proper credit on the signage?

    2. Hi T.Abe Lloyd. I am working with the Cowichan Valley Regional District (Duncan, BC) on some signage for a riparian restoration project - Busy Place Creek. Some native species in the area are Red Elderberry. Would you be willing to share one of your red elderberry photos, with the guarantee that we would give you the proper credit on the signage? Thanks in advance! You're blog is excellent

  6. "We are trying to imagine uses for Red Elderberry that are akin to tomato sauce".

    YESSSSSSS!!!! My thoughts exactly! I've never actually tried red elderberry but I've crushed them in my hands and thought that maybe they would have a savory/astringent quality that might be vaguely analogous to tomatoes. You guys are so on my wave length; will you be giving any workshops in the near future? Some food tastings at harvest fairs or farmer's markets, perhaps?


  7. Red elder seeds turn up in Tillamook archaeological sites. At Coos Bay, the pulp was separated from the seeds and eaten, often (but not always) mixed with salmon eggs or crab apples

  8. How long is the life span of an red elderberry? Mine is now around 13 years old and some branches are dying. It gets a lot of afternoon sun.

  9. Next time you want to strain puree with fine seeds, you might try putting the cooked mix into a china cap strainer with very small holes and using a hand-held blender inside it--this pulls the seeds back in away from the holes while simultaneously liquefying the fruit, which streams out of the strainer fairly rapidly. This quicker method may keep the seeds from making the pulp bitter (or it might make the whole thing taste bad, in which case, forget you heard it from me!) Really interesting site, thanks!

  10. I pick wild blue elderberries in utah. I smash them with a handheld device that you turn that crushes them, then i boil the smashed mess. I strain it and add equal parts sugar and boil again. Put in sterile jars and use as pancake syrup or on vanilla ice cream. Very good! Ate a small handfull on icecream once raw and had very bad diahrea for a few hours and was very sick to stomach for a 8 or more hours. Talking about it a year later still makes me feel sick.

  11. Where can we find elderberries in Seattle? Are there any parks in Seattle that have this plant? I'm looking to make elderflower champagne. Thanks.

  12. Living a short hour east of Vancouver, B.C. red elderberry grows everywhere it seems, along the highway as well as in the woods and I would like to make some jelly to use in place of cranberry jelly with meats. This website has been very helpfull. I am familiar with elderflower 'juice' as it is available at IKEA and a popular item in Sweden, as are the rose hip drinks and teas being loaded with vitamin C, even after cooking and processing. I think I will do some experimenting with pectin made from apple peelings and cores that have been cooked with water to produce a syrupy product that jells blackberry juice at a rate of 4 cups blackberry juice to 1 cup apple pectin 'juice' and equal amount of sugar: its great for reduced sugar jelling. would anyone like to know the results of my experimentation? Anonymous, in the Valley.

  13. Luteolin supplements is sometimes called as flavonoid that exists in many types of plants including fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. From here:

  14. In your research, it appears that the flowers of Sambucus racemosa are inedible, correct? The literature I am finding is elusive at best, some saying yes and others no. Do you have any experience with using the flowers in your life in fritters, much like those who use the flowers of the black and blue elderberry?

  15. I have eaten Red Elderberry flowers that were cooked into fritters. They tasted fine (as all fritters do) but I felt they had a laxative effect. I can't say they are inedible, but I don't personally recommend them. I have not encountered any evidence that the flowers were eaten by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

  16. Hi, fellow Bellinghamite :) (I was born here and refuse to be a 'hamster')
    You would have loved my grandmother - spent her youth in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. Her use of plants helped her reduce her (diabetic) insulin usage by half. Great blog!

  17. anyone know where there are chokecherries around Spokane or colville

  18. were could I buy elderberry fruit tree seeds

  19. I do all of my blue elderberries in a steamer juicer, so I can throw in the berries with stems and all, no fuss no muss. The juice comes out clean and pure. Lovely. It's also possible that the crushing of skins and seeds in a food mill could contribute to the unpleasant aftertaste. Just a thought. Informative article. Thanks!