Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes

Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes | Foraging tips & handy hints for picking & preserving elderberries with plenty of recipe ideas!

Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes | Foraging tips & handy hints for picking & preserving elderberries with plenty of recipe ideas!

The short season for picking and preserving elderberries means we don’t have long to get stuck in. Once the elderberries are almost black and hanging heavily on their stems, they won’t be around for long after the local bird population make their move.

Birds are clever creatures with a canny sense for ripe fruit and here at the Kitchen Shed I’d decided to wait one extra day for the elderberries to ripen just a little more. Next day when I went out with my scissors and basket almost half the fruit had disappeared !

Full of antioxidants to aid healthy cell production and packed with Vitamin C, elderberries have all the qualities of a superfood and they’re free !
There’s an abundance of elderberries out there ready to be picked and preserved and the beauty of elderberries is that you don’t need to live in the countryside to get a good harvest – you’ll find elderberries in parks, gardens and alongside footpaths in the city too.

Elderberries are best not eaten raw as they can give some people a bad tum and if you’ve ever eaten one straight from the bush you’ll know they are rather tart. Tasting a bit like a blackberry but more sour and with a slightly earthy taste, elderberries are delicious in wine, fruit vinegars, jellies and baking to add an extra dimension to both sweet and savoury dishes.

Here at the Kitchen Shed, we love our Sweet Elderberry Vinegar drizzled over ice cream, mixed with a good rape seed oil for a delicious salad dressing (even better than balsamic) or even a spoonful adding a tasty boost to a gravy.

I’d better stop extolling the virtues of the humble elderberry and get down to the purpose of this post and give you information on how to pick and preserve them.

Harvesting Elderberries: Picking

  • The leaves and stems of the elderberry are toxic so discard them after picking.
  • Elderberries need to be fully ripe as the unripe berries can cause tummy upsets so make sure you pick the berries when they are almost black, a few red ones won’t matter but you definitely want to discard the green ones.
  • You can feel the difference in the berries anyway once you start stripping them from the stems, the ripe berries are soft and juicy and unripe are hard as bullets.
  • Choose a tree that is free from pollution, in the city you’re more likely to have the problem of roadside exhaust fumes and in the countryside insecticide spraying.
  • Another tip is not too pick lower than a labradoodle can raise its back leg 🙂
  • Take a pair of scissors with you along with a plastic bag, the berries are rather juicy and can easily stain your clothes.
  • Pick on a warm sunny day otherwise your fruit will have added water and they won’t be as tasty.
  • Always leave some for the birds and other foragers.

Clean your elderberries:

The first job you need to do is to give them a thorough wash, this is far easier done before you strip the berries from the stems. You tend to find all sorts of creepy crawlies on the berries from spiders to ants.

The easiest way to wash them is to fill a large bowl with water and add the elderberries swishing them around to dispel any unwanted debris or insects which usually rise to the surface so you can skim them off. Sometimes a second rinse is required depending on the state of your elderberries.

Strip the berries:
  • Stripping the berries can be a messy job – if you don’t fancy yourself with purple fingers you might want to use food grade gloves.
  • Pick off and discard any unripe fruit, leaving the purple (ideally almost black) berries on the stems.
  • At this point you can open freeze your bunches of berries for later use – once frozen the berries come off the stems easily.
  • Whether fresh or frozen, a fork makes light work of stripping the berries from the stems just as you would with redcurrants.
    OH and I did a comparison between using fingers and forks to strip the berries but there really wasn’t much difference time wise or in effort, so it’s a case of doing whichever you find easiest.

Harvesting Elderberries: Preserving

Elderberries have a fairly short shelf life so once picked it’s best to get them preserved as quickly as you can.

Frozen elderberries



Place the cleaned fully ripe berries still on their stems on trays and open freeze them for a couple of hours before transferring them to a container or freezer bag.

Freezing the berries is a really easy way to deal with your berries, particularly if you’re pushed for time. The berries are much easier to strip off the stems when the fruit is brittle, in fact you’ll find the berries start dropping off the stems when you place the open frozen berries into a container.

I would recommend only large juicy ripe elderberries for freezing, smaller less ripe fruit tend to stay with their stems.

Elderberries on dehydrator tray

How to dry elderberries:

In the UK, the temperate climate means the best way to dry elderberries is to use a dehydrator – I have tried drying fruit in a low oven with the door open but the results were inconsistent.

A dehydrator uses less electricity than an oven and these days there are plenty of good value dehydrators on the market.

OH bought my Excalibur years ago when we first came to France and from memory the supplier was a UK company who imported the Excaliburs from the US and then converted the electrics.

My Excalibur is in use throughout the year and I wouldn’t be without it.

Elderberries in dehydrator

Dehydrator times and temperature:

  • Place your elderberries on trays and place them in your dehydrator at 135 ℃ / 250 ℉ for approximately 10 hours, turning the trays around half way through drying.
  • Your berries want to be thoroughly dried out to ensure they keep. Going to the trouble of drying fruit or vegetables only to find they’ve grown a fur coat when you come to use them is very disheartening.
  • Store your dried fruit in an airtight container, I like to use a glass Le Parfait or Kilner jar.
  • Rehydrate before use or use like currants in your favourite bakes.

Harvesting Elderberries: Recipes

Elderberry Jelly with Port – this fruity seedless jam is delicious on toast or a scone and is equally good with cooked or cold meats as it pairs perfectly with beef, pork, lamb and poultry. Simply add the jelly to your gravy or jus as you would when using redcurrant jelly.

A spoon of my Elderberry & Port Jelly.

Try my Elderberry Tart  

Tart aux Myrtilles is the inspiration for my Elderberry Tart. I’ve used a rich butter pastry and used a small amount of custard flavoured with Creme de Cassis as a base for the elderberries for my version of this much loved tart. It truly is delicious.

Elderberry Tart makes the most of this delicious foraged fruit. Elderberries & a cassis flavoured custard fill this butter pastry shell - my version of the much loved Tarte aux Myrtilles.

Or try making some Sweet Elderberry Vinegar

Sweet Elderberry Vinegar is a tasty alternative to Balsamic and makes the most delicious salad dressing. Try drizzling your Elderberry Vinegar over ice cream or add it to sparkling water and ice for a refreshing summer drink. The vinegar is so versatile it even doubles up as a cold and flu remedy, simply add hot water to a tablespoon of Elderberry Vinegar and stir.

Sweet Elderberry Vinegar is a tasty alternative to Balsamic and makes the most delicious salad dressing. Try drizzling your Elderberry Vinegar over ice cream or add it to sparkling water and ice for a refreshing summer drink.


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Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes | Foraging tips & handy hints for picking & preserving elderberries with plenty of recipe ideas!

51 thoughts on “Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes”

  • I see elderberries like in your pictures where I live, but I have seen other people that show pictures of a pale blue berry. Is that a different variety? I found some where I live while they were in bloom. In fall I went back and they were the pale blue. I was afraid to try them, as I wasn’t sure, but I see them on some sites and wonder if they were?

    • Hi Lucinda, elderberry varieties in the UK are purple to almost black and start off red. I haven’t come across a pale blue berry variety in the
      UK. Sorry I can’t be of more help but you are right not to pick them. You don’t want to be ill from eating a berry you’re not sure of. Maybe there is a local forager’s club you could ask for advice. Do let me know if you found out what the berries are.

      • If you live in the American Southwest, you are looking at a Mexican Blue Elderberry, Sambucus caerulea. Excellent producer in hot dry climates.

        • Thanks for the information Carolyn. It’s really useful to know, it makes sense to have a variety that does well in hot dry climates.

  • This was a really useful and clear post on harvesting elderberries – thanks for sharing! It helped me a lot to know what I needed to do to pick and prepare some from our communal garden last weekend.

    • It’s a pleasure to share Imogen, so pleased you found the information useful. How lovely to be involved in a communal garden.

  • I ‘m a winemaker and elderberries are possibly my favourite thing to make it from. They’re not called the ‘Englishman’s Grape’ for nothing! Another favourite is an elderberry/blackberry mix; blackberry on its own remains a bit sweet and syrupy, almost like a port.

    Am finding elderberries are ripening on different trees at different rates this year. Some of my usual sources are very ripe, which seems a little early, whilst some still have little but green berries on. The heat has given a good crop it looks like!

    • Hi Chris, thanks for popping by. We used to make Elderberry wine, it is delicious and well worth the effort. I’m waiting for our elderberries to ripen, yours do seem early, a bonus!

  • my father and his mother made elderberry pies…they preserved the fresh elderberries with only sugar and kept them in a air tight containter in the old fruit celler…I still have some from four years ago in sealed mason jars…. I can not find the amount of sugar they added…We did not cook the berries until they went into the pie..have you ever heard of this?

    • Thanks for getting on touch Richard. Sugar does work as good preserver but I must admit I’ve never tried this method. It would be interesting to know how much sugar they used and whether the fruit is well preserved after four years.

  • I love elderberry. They are great and have so many health benefits. You have so many great tips here. I really want to try this out. My next DYI project.

  • I’ve never had elderberry preserves before, I take elderberry tablets to help with a cold or allergies. I’ll have to look for the actually berries to make this.

  • You and my toddler have inspired me try elderberries. I’ve never seen them in the grocery stores though so where can you find them???

    • They can be purchased dried on Amazon, I believe. Elderberries are not sold fresh because they begin to ferment quickly after picking, in as little as 12 hours. Perhaps you can find frozen? I don’t know. I just know that if you want them fresh you have to grow them yourself, or go hunting in the wilderness!

  • Oh my goodness, I am so excited to see this post! I *just* discovered several elderberry trees on my property! Of course, it is late in the season and the birds found them long before I did. But now that I know they are there, I’ll be ready in the spring to get to them before the birds. I’ll also be propagating more from the existing trees.

  • What an interesting and versatile fruit! They don’t seem to be available in this part of the world, but I’m thinking maybe I can find them canned, would love to give them a try!

  • I just LOVE elderberries! and they are so good for you. I usually make a cold & flu elixir with them too. The flowers smell amazing too. 🙂

  • ELderberries I’ve discovered in Germany, before that I’ve never heard of it. I’m a big fan since the first moment, now liviing in Spain it’s too far to get some but every time I stop in Germany I do reserves! Lucky you to have it next door! and fresh!

  • I’ve never had an Elderberry. I need to start paying more attention at the Farmer’s Market to see if I can find some.

  • Wow, love this!!! Elderberries look so tempting and the jam looks yummy. I have to see if they are sold in the local farmers market, never seen them before.

  • A trip down memory lane of my childhood – sitting on the porch removing elderberries from their stems. We canned them to use later for elderberry cream pie.

  • Hi. Love your site. Reading the Elderberry article. Are elderberries on the trees at this time harvest able? Because this is the time of year I see bunches on the small trees. Barely have leaves yet. And of course I’ve been stopping & getting branches full. They actually seem ripe. But I heard their not harvest able till June?

    • Thanks Kari, I harvested our elderberries in late August and I must admit I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen elderberries on a tree before the leaves are there. It’s best to see the elderflowers first to verify exactly what fruit you are picking.

  • Should be elderberries be washed before freezing or after freezing and ready to use? We have them growing wild here in western Pennsylvania, and I can’t wait to harvest them next June!

    • Sorry for being so late with a reply Linda, I’ve been ill since the new year. The elderberries are best washed first, I dried them off in the sun for a few hours afterwards. Thanks for popping by and good luck with your harvest.

    • Thanks Toni, glad you found the tips useful and a fork does make removing the elderberries from the fork much easier.

  • Aren’t birds clever, amazing how they know the moment when they’re just ready. Great post Sarah, full of tips. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for them incase there are still some up here in Yorkshire ready to be harvested….that’s assuming the birds haven’t got to them yet!
    Angela x

    • They are aren’t they? We have a cherry tree and this year we didn’t get a single cherry because the birds got there first. We’re going to net the tree next year! Hope you find some elderberries, do let me know how you get on xx

  • Elderberries always make me think of a Flower Fairy book that I was given as a child. There is an Elderberry fairy illustration and poem in there. That port jelly recipe does sound amazing. But I think that I would be so worried about poisoning my family. Ha ha! Hugs Lucy xxxx

    • Thanks Lucy, I love the sound of your Elderberry fairy illustration and poem. Hopefully now you’ve seen the photos of the elder tree and elderberry fruit you needn’t be worried about poisoning your family, lol. Thanks for stopping by and sending hugs xx

  • Sweet elderberry vinegar over ice cream sounds delicious!! I have to say I dont think I have made anything with elderberry before, but you have inspired me! Oh and birds are crafty creatures lol! x

    • Thanks Yvonne, the elderberry vinegar over ice cream is a big favourite of ours at the Kitchen Shed. If you haven’t tried elderberries before the vinegar recipe is a good one to start with. x

  • Wow some amazing tips here. I don’t think I’ve ever had elder berries before. They look very juicy and the jam with port sounds delicious!

  • Oooh looks superb! We have an elderberry tree in our garden in the UK, I have yet to try and do anything with them, you’ve given me a few ideas!

    • Thanks, hope you get to try a few of my elderberry ideas, so handy having a tree in your garden.

    • Thanks Lyndsey, you can find elderberry trees in parks and gardens in the city as well as in the hedgerows in the countryside.

  • Some great tips. Sounds like you’ve got some lovely ideas to make use of the book elderberries. I lobe picking blackberries and making jam. Jo x

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