Blue elderberry: A great fall berry from the forest

blue elderberry
Fruits of blue elderberry are gathered from the wild for wine, jellies, candy, pies, and sauces. The plants also are commercially cultivated. Photo: Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Blue elderberry is one of the great plants of the Pacific Northwest forest and is found in nearly every county of Washington State. It grows in wet, cool shady areas and produces berries prized for their flavor by both humans and wildlife. Native people have used it for as a medicinal plant, and to make dyes.

Sambucus caerulea, the scientific name for the blue elderberry, is different from the Sambucus racemosa, the red elderberry. The most important difference is that blue elderberry is safe to eat while the red elderberry must be used with much caution. Even so, berries from the blue elderberry must never be eaten when they are green because they contain a chemical that will cause much stomach distress, and even death if eaten in quantity.

The berries are best eaten fresh when they have become fully ripe. You will know when they are ripe when they have turned dark blue. This can be a little hard to determine if the berries are still covered with a white/silvery bloom or glaucescence. It will rub off very easily to expose the ripe berries. It is safe to eat the berries with the white covering.

The berries become their best after a hard frost. This event seems to soften them and to make them sweeter.

More about blue elderberry…   

blue elderberry bush
Blue elderberry is a popular forage plant for wildlife. It is highly adaptable, easy to establish and useful as a stabilizing ground cover. Photo: Dave Powell/USDA Forest Service/Bugwood.org

The berries can be eaten fresh or used in pies, jellies, jams, juices and toppings. Adding some fresh berries to homemade ice cream is a real treat. If you are into making your own beer, wine or liquors, elderberry is a great source of flavor and color. Elderberry is the main ingredient in Sambuca, a strong liquor made in Sicily.

Blue elderberry is used in natural foods as a source of blue coloring. It helps make blueberry juice look blue.

The plant can be grown from cuttings, seeds or transplants. Fall is a great time to identify the plant before it loses its leaves. Mark the shrub with flagging or metal tags. For good survival of the transplant it is best to move only smaller plants. If you will have a year to spare before moving the plant root, pruning the plant in the fall will provide a stronger plant to be moved in the following fall. There’s still time to do this in 2013. For even better survival try moving plants to a transplant bed. A season of watering and protecting them there will increase your success from a 40 percent survival rate to a better than 80 percent rate.

[This article, by Jim Freed, Washington State University Extension Forest Products Specialist, was originally published in the Fall issue of Forest Stewardship Notes, a free DNR e-newsletter for those who own small forest properties or are interested in learning more about Washington’s woodlands.]

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