Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Elderberry Season

The development of an environmental ethic is much facilitated by the annual consumption of elderberry pie. This year, with the rest of the family out of town, I was able to pass along this family tradition to my older daughter. That tradition, which I became a part of growing up in the midwest, involves seeking out elderberry bushes growing along lakes or sunny streamsides, being lucky enough to find some ripe berries before the birds eat them all, and then rinsing and patiently stripping the berries off the stems.

My daughter stripped the berries while watching a movie on the laptop--an interesting integration of tactile tradition with the media-rich present. Having lost, or never learned, the time-honored  family recipe, we found one on the internet.

Elderberry is a lanky shrub that needs lots of room to grow, usually in low, wet, sunny ground. Unlike most shrubs, it can be easily propagated by cutting a two foot length of stem during the winter, and sticking it halfway into the ground. If placed right side up, the "live stake" will sprout roots and leaves in the appropriate places and, if kept moist the first year, soon produce enough berries to feed the next generation of environmentalists.

Note: A friend expressed concern that people might confuse elderberry with the poisonous berries of pokeweed. Anyone eating wild foods should do their research beforehand. I had the benefit of parents and teachers who could serve as guides. If schools put more value on learning plant identification (what a great way to learn to see subtle distinctions in pattern--a skill with many applications beyond botany), kids would feel much more empowered and comfortable out in the woods. I posted photos of pokeweed on September 8. At least this year, it matured a month after elderberry, which will also help distinguish between the two.


  1. Although the plants are quite different, elderberry sprays looked surprising like the highly poisonous poke weed sprays, which also do grow in this area. First timers should be VERY careful to pick only elderberries and not poke berries. Though thankfully poke weeds tend to grow in sunnier spots, I think. Still, everyone be careful!

  2. you might be interested in these folks' blog:

    they are always finding something edible in the wild