Elderberries are somewhat of a superfood that has been forgotten over time in Europe. As more exotic fruits and berries have gotten space in our supermarkets we forgot that we have one of the most healthy and versatile berries here at home. The elderberry is packed with anti-oxidants, bioflavonoids, vitamin C, A and B - as well as large amounts of amino acids. In fact - a small spoon of elderberry jelly or jam on your toast in the morning covers most of your daily need of vitamin C. In Eastern medicine the elderberry is used to lower cholesterol and fight colds, flues and infections. The bioflavonoids and other proteins in the berries break down flu virus' ability to attack a cell - making it a great remedy to have when the winter sets in. In fact the juice of this berry is so potent at curing ailments that it is used to increase the immune system response in both cancer and AIDS patients.
The science behind this is rather simple really - as we digest this berry our immune system gets an immediate boost and the oxidative stress to our cells is reduced by the anti-oxidants.
Better yet is that you can go out in pretty much any park or hedgerow in most of Europe, America, Canada and Asia to pick this. As long as you are in an area that gets enough rainfall this plant will be everywhere and the berries will be ripe from July (warm areas) to September (temperate areas). The way the trees form their clusters of berries makes it easy to pick and you won't have to spend long to get enough for several jars of jelly or bottles of cordial. So here it is, my guide on how to pick elderberries and how to clean them in a quick and effective manner.
Just make sure you find the right tree before you start picking. There are a few plants out there that look similar as you can see on the picture below. Make sure it looks like the one of the right. Compare the leaves and the berry cluster.
The elderflower tree is a rather dense, thick growing tree and you will not have any trouble spotting them in parks and green areas. Their berries will hang towards the ground in clusters of 50-100 berries at a time, all you need to do to pick them is to cut them at the larger branch holding the smaller individual clusters of berries. I always bring a basket lined with paper to do this as they do colour off quite badly.
Even though there might be the occasional green berry on some of the clusters you can still pick them. The green berries will be easily sifted out later in the cleaning process. Please note that there are some berries that will look a bit like elderberries but they will be growing on much smaller bushes and be larger in size.
Once you have picked a good amount of clusters it is time to clean them. To effectively do this you will need a couple of bowls - one for dropping the berries into once you pulled them off the clusters and one filled with water to sift out the green berries and chaff from the plant.
What is great about doing this is that the ripe berries will sink, letting you easily pick out the unripe berries and any other unwanted thing in your harvest. The process is rather simple, take a cluster and hold it by its main branch. Pull the berries off with mild force, making sure you don't squish them between your fingers. The ripe berries will let go pretty quickly while the unripe ones will want to stay on the cluster. Discard the cluster once you have gotten the ripe berries off - don't worry if some remain on the cluster as you will have many more waiting to be cleaned.
Use a small strainer to get the unripe berries, twigs and chaff out of the water - this way you will only end up with the ripe berries. Change the water of the berries a couple of times and then leave them to dry in their bowl. Now you have to decide what you want to do with them. You can blanche and freeze them for later use or make a wide arrange of dishes. I have already posted an elderberry jelly recipe that works really well with pancakes or on toast.
Good luck with your picking, remember that home made and home picked food will taste all the more greater as you made the effort to pick, clean and cook it yourself.
Please also be kind to the trees when you are picking the berries and only pick berries that you can actually reach - leave the rest for the birds and wildlife that depend on the nutrition that these berries offer.