Members of the honeysuckle family, elderberry plants bloom in early to midsummer to provide a harvest from July through September in most parts of the U.S. Because fresh elderberries have a tart taste, they're more often cooked and used in jellies, jams, pies, wines, spirits, flavored waters, flavored vinegars and teas. You can use the fruit dried, fresh or frozen.
Varieties of Elderberry
Three main varieties of elderberry grow in North America. European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is also known as black elder or common elder. American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), also known as sweet elder or black elderberry, produces berries with a flavor slightly sweeter than those of European elder. The leaves, stems, bark and roots of the red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa) are considered dangerous, as they contain cyanide-producing toxins. While the berries are deemed edible, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service warns that the berries of this elder may be toxic unless they are properly prepared.
Most people consider elderberries too bland, bitter or astringent to eat as fresh, raw berries, but the berries develop a far better flavor, sweet and juicy, when processed for use in food and drink, so you should wash and cook your berries for best use. American elderberry flowers are also edible.
Elderberry jam has a sweet-tart taste with earthy undertones. Elderberries add complexity and tannins to homemade wines, or you can use elderberries alone. The fruits mix well with other fruits in pies and other desserts, adding color and depth of flavor.
The difficult part of handling elderberries is separating the stem from the berry, as a waxy substance exudes from the stem. Freezing the berries then removing them from the stems may make the task easier. Wear old clothes when working with elderberries because they tend to stain.
Elderberry plants are easily confused with toxic water hemlock (Cicuta mexicana), which grows in the same areas. Do not touch water hemlock. Elderberry has leaves oppositely arranged, paired along the stem, while hemlock has alternate leaves. Elderberry stems of have white or light gray pith and emit a foul odor when crushed, while hemlock stems have hollow pith and purple stripes.