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What to do with Elderberries - Sambucus Nigra

Elderberries image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.netElderberries image courtesy of

You've likely seen them growing all over the place, in hedgerows and on waste ground - they don't seem to mind what little soil there is and will grow big all the same! The Elder tree is considered a magical tree with all manner of rhymes and stories associated with it, 'Burn it not or cursed be...' is a warning I don't wish to tempt! ;) 

Elderberries, and their flowers, can be something of an acquired taste but even if you're not a fan of the flavour it's still worth stashing a couple of bottles away for it's superior health benefits! Elder berries are the basis of Sambucol, and have been tested to be effective against many strains of the virus Influenza including the much feared H1N1. In some instances it was even deemed MORE effective than Tamiflu! It's funny how nature seems to still have the answer to the natural evolution of virus species if we would just trust it more.

Elder is fairly well identifiable with its downward drooping berry clusters (no the photo is not upside down!) yet there are some poisonous plants that could be confused to the untrained eye. Dwarf Elder holds its berry clusters upright, and Dogwood has similarly shaped leaves but the berries are not produced in the same kind of umbrella arrangement. Another useful way to spot a Dogwood is the carefully split the leaf in half horizontally - when the halves are gently pulled apart they will be held together by strings from their prominent veins. As with all wild foods make sure that you are 110% sure that you have properly identified the plant you are gathering from and that you have permission from the landowner!


So what do you do with them?

Elder berries can be eaten in small amounts raw, though they're bitter with a hard pip inside so you wouldn't want many that way anyway. The pips actually contain traces of the toxin cyanide and raw elder can also have laxative effects so go easy either way! ;) Once cooked elder berries are safe in larger volumes. Beware of the staining power of these mighty little berries!

You could make them into a tangy compote to go with Scones or desserts, swirl some with a little honey into yogurt for breakfast, sandwich between sponge Victoria style or bottle some as a syrup or cordial drink... 

They also make a simple and impressive pastry, click here for the recipe.

Syrup can be made from frozen or even dried berries (rehydrated for the recipe) so if you don't have everything you need to bottle it now, freeze in tubs or dry them in either a dehydrator or in the oven on it's lowest setting with the door ajar. I also like to have a bag of dried berries stashed away in my medicine bag, which can be boiled to make tea instead!

See below for the syrup making process for preserving your berries, we'll add more uses in the future:


Syrup and cordial

We try to avoid high sugar recipes where we can, or often substitute the sugar for healthier varieties like birch Xylitol, Maple syrup or honey but for preservation purposes it is unfortunately VERY necessary. Perhaps after seeing for yourself just how much refined sugar is in these recipes you may eat/drink a little less of it per day, which is good – not only would that be healthier for you but your lovely preserves will last longer too! :)

Citric acid is also necessary for preservation, especially if you are planning on keeping your syrups and cordials for a whole year which will allow you to continue enjoying your favourite fruit until it's back in season again. Use fresh lemon juice or powdered citric acid.

So what is the difference between a syrup and a cordial? A syrup is a much thicker solution so essentially you just need to keep simmering the water away until it begins to thicken. Remember that sugar solutions will always stiffen up further once cooled. 


Cover and simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally until the berries have softened and the juice runs flows dark. It's a potent smelling brew! Separate the berries from the stems and pick over to remove any that are unripe or pest damaged. Put into a large heavy based saucepan or stock pot with enough water to almost cover the berries but not too much that you'll be boiling it for days! 

Allow to cool slightly and strain through a sieve or muslin bag, the less pulp you squeeze through the clearer the result will be. If I'm making into a jam or compote I squeeze as much of the goodness as I possibly can but it's messy business so have a bowl ready to wash your stained hands! ;)

As with all preservation recipes you need to conduct a little maths depending on what quantity of juice you actually have to work with, ideally you want a 65-75% sugar solution. Almost 3/4 cup of sugar to every cup of juice - yeah I said it's a lot!

Add a squeeze of lemon juice and bottle whilst hot into sterilised bottles, sealing immediately. A funnel helps here, and be careful not to spill any on your skin as syrups can cause serious burns! The contents should keep without refrigeration for a year though beware of any that seem fermented when opened. All preserves require strict cleanliness standards to ensure they won't go bad. 

So there we are, your very own cordial drink mix and a way to keep the flu at bay throughout the winter season! 


Have you used Elderberries before? Or will you be trying this now you've read about it? We'd love to hear from you so leave us a comment below!


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Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more

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