Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Blue elderberry- fastest fruit in the west

Early in the season flowers, unripe, and ripe fruit are all present
Unripe berries don't have any bloom and have green stems
Over the last several years I have become more and more amazed at just how prolific Blue Elderberries (Sambucus cerulea) can be. A couple years ago I picked 4 gallons of fruit in 13 minutes. Last week, on our way back from the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, Katrina and I outdid that record. We stopped just west of Wenatchee in apple orchard country and found the Elderberries loaded with fruit that was just starting to ripen. Blue Elderberries develop a whitish bloom on the berries when they are ready to harvest. This bloom is technically called epicuticular wax and protects the berries from UV radiation, desiccation, and excessive moisture. Many fruits that persist on the bush for several months have significant bloom.

Katrina with a 2 pound cluster!

Some of the bushes that we harvested were up to 10 inches in diameter and 30 feet tall, making it impossible to reach the massive clusters of fruit near the top. I think the Elderberries in this region are especially productive because they benefit from the apple orchard irrigation- their roots probably reach down to a more accessible water table surrounding the irrigation canals. With three bags already full, we got permission to harvest several bushes that were next to a migrant workers' irrigated kitchen garden, and the berry clusters on those bushes were immense- some weighing at least 2 pounds and measuring close to a foot across. All told, we filled 5 large cloth grocery bags with fruit (about 20 gallons) in less than an hour.

Removing the stems
Back home, we put the fruit in the freezer for a few days to sweeten it and make the fruit less burdensome to process. I actually think that wetting the fruit slightly before freezing it would make it even easier to de-stem. Rolling the berry clusters between our hands quickly detached the fruit from the myriad of small stems, which should not be eaten. The leaves, bark, and stems of all elderberry species are poisonous.

At this stage, the berries can be frozen, dried for later use, or processed immediately into juice, jelly, wine, etc. We dried some, and juiced the rest by putting several inches of water in a large pot and simmered the berries until they softened. We then strained the juice out and canned it. Katrina also started a small batch of Blue Elderberry wine.
Blue Elderberries from start to finish including canned juice, berry pulp, wine, and dried berries.

It is now only the beginning of the Blue Elderberry season (and perhaps even a little early for bushes west of the Cascades). In the next 2 months we look forward to canning many gallons of Elderberry juice for drinking straight and mixing with our smoothies throughout the rest of the year. Elderberry juice has a flavor that is a cross between grape juice and tomato or cranberry juice with a smell that is similar to grapes.  Last year we picked Elderberries through the middle of October. On years that the birds don’t eat all the fruit, they may be fine to pick into the early winter.

Pyramid shaped flowers of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
Heavy cluster of Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) fruit
There are a couple other Elderberry species in the Pacific Northwest. Red Elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) are much more common west of the Cascades than Blue Elderberries, but the fruit is far inferior (in fact, from a food standpoint, I haven't yet figured out how to use it). Native Americans diluted their tastier berries with Red Elderberries when they were going to trade them, but reserved their pure berry cakes for personal use. I have had decent tasting fritters made from Red Elderberry flowers- but what battered and fried plant doesn’t taste good? Red Elderberries produce fruit mid-summer and are mostly done fruiting now. Black Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are mostly found east of the Rockies but are occasionally found in the Cascades. I got to harvest Black Elderberries last week with Sam and found their flavor to be intermediate between Blue and Red Elderberries, but more similar to Blue in flavor and appearance- having palatable berries and flat clusters of fruit.

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