Chase away fall blues with some blue elderberry

It’s National Forest Products Week (Oct. 16-22, 2016), but wood is far from the only product that our woodlands produce. Blue elderberry is one of the great plants of the Pacific Northwest forest. This berry can be found in nearly every county of Washington state, and the crop is ripe in many locations this time of year. Growing in wet, cool shady areas, blue elderberries are prized for their flavor by both humans and wildlife. Native people have used it as a medicinal plant as well as for food.

One big caution

The blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea) differs from the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). The most important difference between the two is that blue elderberry is generally safe to eat while the red elderberry can be poisonous. Even so, berries from the blue elderberry bush must never be eaten when green and unripe because in that state they contain a chemical that will cause much stomach distress, and even death, if eaten in quantity.

Red elderberry
Although it has some medicinal values, red elderberry can be poisonous and its use should be left to experts in wild plants. Photo: King County.

Blue elderberries 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 white/silvery covering, or glaucescence, from the flower blooms. This white covering will rub off very easily to expose the ripe berries beneath.

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

Many uses

the common elderberry
Foliage of the common elderberry. Photo: Richard Webb/

Blue elderberry 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.

…and some important rules

The non-commercial harvest of mushrooms, berries, fiddleheads, and other special forest products for personal consumption — no reselling — is allowed in state forests managed by DNR.  Limits include up to three gallons of a single species of berry per person per day, not to exceed nine gallons per year. Using rakes and other tools to pick berries is not allowed. Harvesting also is prohibited in DNR-managed campgrounds, picnic sites, natural area preserves and natural resources conservation areas, unless specifically allowed in the area’s management plan. Read more about gathering from state trust lands. Contact a DNR region office to find out more about seasonal berry gathering as well as local timber harvests, road closures, construction projects, and other potential hazards.

If you are headed to a Washington state park, U.S. National Forest or other public land to forage, be sure to call or check online for their rules  — they also may be able to tell you when or where the picking is best this time of year.

Above all, respect the land, don’t trespass on private property, be prepared for bad weather and, importantly, be aware that bears are out gathering berries, too.

This post is based on an article originally published in Forest Stewardship Notes, a free electronic newsletter produced quarterly by DNR and Washington State University Extension. The original author was Jim Freed, a WSU extension forest products specialist. (Blue elderberry photo by William & Wilma Follette, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. 1992)