elderberry syrup

Amazing American Elderberry: Identifying, Harvesting, Preparation, and Uses

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As a lover of nature, I am always looking for ways to connect with the environment around me. One of my favorite ways to do this is by foraging for wild edibles, and one plant that I always keep an eye out for is the American elderberry, also known as Sambucus canadensis. This native plant is abundant in many parts of North America and has been used for centuries for its medicinal and culinary properties.

Identifying American elderberry is relatively easy, as they grow in large clusters on shrubs or small trees and have distinctive flat-topped clusters of small white flowers in the spring that mature into dark purple berries in the late summer or early fall. Harvesting them at the right time is crucial, as unripe berries can be toxic and overripe ones can be mushy and less flavorful. Once harvested, elderberries can be used in a variety of ways, from making jams, cordials, and syrups to brewing tea and wine.

In addition to their culinary uses, elderberries are also known for their health benefits. They are high in antioxidants and have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. As a native plant, American elderberry plays an important role in supporting local ecosystems and can be a valuable addition to any backyard or garden.

American elderberry


As I venture out to harvest elderberries, I first seek out their natural habitat. American elderberry bushes are commonly found in moist areas such as along riverbanks, in fields, and at the edge of forests. They prefer full sun, but can also grow in partial shade.

I have noticed that elderberry bushes tend to grow in large clusters, making it easier to spot and harvest a significant amount of berries at once.  I always make sure to properly identify any wild plants before harvesting. Here’s a list of my favorite books on foraging if you’re not sure where to start: Best Books about Northeast Foraging: My Favorites List

In addition to their preferred habitat, elderberries are also sensitive to pollution and pesticides. I make sure to avoid areas that are heavily sprayed with chemicals or near busy roads to ensure that the berries I harvest are safe for consumption.

Overall, I approach American elderberry harvesting with a reverence for the natural environment and a deep appreciation for the gifts that nature provides.


Identification of American Elderberry 

American elderberry is fairly easy to identify once you know what to look for.  In fact, if you live in the Northeast, you’ve likely seen this amazing plant even if you didn’t know what it was.  

American elderberry grows as a deciduous shrub or small tree that can grow up to 12 feet tall and can be recognized by its distinct leaf features, which are elongated with serrated edges resembling sawteeth. These leaves grow in opposing pairs, typically with 5 to 7 leaves on every stem. The veins of the leaf are highly noticeable as they diverge from the lighter green midrib. As they approach the leaf’s edge, the veins gradually fade and become narrower, without the prominent characteristic of ending in the valleys of the serrated edges.

Identifying American elderberry is most effortlessly done during its flowering stage. The American elderberry plant showcases a wide, flattened cluster of petite, creamy white flowers that can reach up to 10 inches in diameter and attract a variety of pollinators. These flowers exhibit petals with rounded tips, with five petals adorning each tiny blossom. Additionally, you will usually find five delicate white filament tubes emerging from the flower’s central region and terminating in a pale yellow tip, although there may be instances of only three or four tips originating from within the flower. In Eastern Connecticut, where I reside, these flowers typically begin to appear during the initial week of June.

Elderberries undergo a transformation from flowers to deep purple/blackish berries as they ripen. While identifying elderberries in their berry stage is generally straightforward, spotting elderberry plants during this phase can be challenging due to their ability to blend in with the surroundings. The process of transitioning from flowers to ripe berries typically spans a period of 6-8 weeks. In Connecticut, these berries reach their ripeness in late July and August. 

Elderberries measure approximately 1/8th of an inch in diameter, resembling the size of a BB. Each rounded berry displays a distinctive bump where it originated from the flower. When consumed, they offer a slightly tart flavor. However, it is important to note that elderberries should not be eaten raw, as consuming more than a few can induce nausea. It is essential to exercise caution, as elderberries can be easily mistaken for other berries that may be poisonous. Always ensure that you correctly identify elderberry plants and remember to cook the berries before consumption.

elderflower cordial recipe
elderberry syrup

Harvesting and Preparation

Harvesting American elderberry each summer is a special moment for me. I approach the plant with reverence, knowing that I am taking a part of nature’s bounty for my own use. When it comes time to pick the elderberries, I use a pair of small pruning shears and snip the entire umbel of berries and carefully remove any insects.  

Once I have harvested the Elderberries, I take them home and wash them thoroughly. I remove any stems and leaves and discard any unripe and mushy berries. 

American elderberry syrup

Medicinal Benefits

I am always amazed at the medicinal benefits that can be found in plants like Elder (Sambucus canadensis). The Elder plant has been used for centuries for its healing properties, and it continues to be a popular natural remedy today.

One of the most well-known medicinal benefits of Elder is its ability to support the immune system. The plant is rich in antioxidants, which may help to protect the body from harmful free radicals and reduce inflammation. This can help to prevent a wide range of illnesses and diseases, including the common cold and flu. In fact, every year I prepare an elderberry syrup that my family takes all winter to support our immune systems. 

Elder is also believed to have anti-viral properties, making it an effective treatment for viral infections like herpes and shingles. The plant’s anti-inflammatory properties can also help to reduce pain and inflammation associated with these conditions.

Apart from its traditional uses for supporting wellness and promoting respiratory comfort, Elder is valued for its historical significance in folk remedies. It is often employed for maintaining respiratory health during seasonal changes. The plant’s properties are thought to aid in promoting respiratory comfort by supporting natural processes.

In summary, American elderberry holds a significant place in natural wellness practices. Whether you’re seeking to support your well-being, adapt to seasonal changes, or address occasional respiratory discomfort, exploring this plant may offer beneficial insights.

american elderberry

Uses of American Elderberry

Elder is a plant that has been revered by homesteaders and herbalists alike for centuries due to its numerous uses. As someone who loves the bounty provided by nature, I have personally used elder for various purposes, and I am excited to share some of them with you.

First and foremost, ripe elderberries are edible and can be used in pies, jellies, jams, juices, syrups, and wine to name a few. They are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, making them a healthy addition to any diet. I have personally used elderberries to make delicious jam, pie, and wine that myself and my family loves.

In addition to the berries, elderflowers can also be used to make various culinary delights. They can be used to make cordials, which can be added to pancakes, waffles, or even cocktails. The syrup has a sweet, floral flavor that is sure to impress anyone who tries it.

Elderflowers can also be used to make wine, which has a unique flavor profile that is hard to find in other wines. The wine has a light, floral taste that pairs well with light meals or as an apéritif. The flowers can also be used to make a tea that has a calming effect and can help with anxiety and stress.

propagating elderberry

Elder in the Ecosystem

As I observe the Elder plant in its natural habitat, I am filled with a deep reverence for the intricate web of life in which it plays a vital role. The Elder is an important native plant, providing food and habitat for a diverse range of creatures in the ecosystem.

Birds such as the Cedar Waxwing and American Robin are frequent visitors to the Elder, feeding on its berries and spreading its seeds throughout the landscape. Wildlife such as deer and rabbits also rely on the Elder for food and shelter.

Pollinators, including bees and butterflies, are attracted to the Elder’s fragrant flowers, which bloom in early summer. These insects play a crucial role in the reproduction of the plant and contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem.

American elderberry is also an excellent choice for naturalizing woodland and home landscapes. Its ability to thrive in a range of soil types and light conditions make it a versatile addition to any garden.

In streams and thickets, the Elder helps to prevent soil erosion and provides a natural barrier against flooding. Its dense foliage also provides valuable shade for aquatic life.

Overall, the Elder is a vital component of the ecosystem, and its importance cannot be overstated. As I continue to learn about this remarkable plant, I am struck by the incredible interconnectedness of all living things in nature.

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propagating elderberry

Propagation Techniques

Propagating Elder is a great way to ensure a steady supply of this wonderful plant. There are a few techniques that can be used to propagate Elder, including suckering, cuttings, and root suckers.

Suckering is a natural process that occurs when the Elder plant sends up new shoots from its roots. These shoots can be dug up and transplanted to a new location. This is a great way to propagate Elder because the new plants will be genetically identical to the parent plant.

Cuttings are another way to propagate Elder. To take cuttings, I select healthy, young branches from the parent plant and cut them into 6-inch pieces. I then remove the leaves from the bottom half of the cutting and dip it into rooting hormone. Finally, I plant the cutting in a pot filled with a well-draining soil mix and keep it moist until it roots. Here is a detailed article about taking elderberry cuttings for rooting: Propagating Elderberry in 10 Easy Steps.

Overall, propagating Elder is a great way to ensure a steady supply of this wonderful plant. Whether using suckering or cuttings, the process is simple and can be done with little prior knowledge.

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it, my fellow nature enthusiasts and curious foragers! Learning about American elderberry has been an incredible journey filled with discovery and excitement. From getting to know its unique features to mastering the art of harvesting those plump, ripe berries, we’ve covered it all. But it doesn’t stop there! Armed with the knowledge of its culinary and medicinal uses, you can now embark on a whole new adventure in your kitchen and wellness routine.

Happy foraging and enjoy the bountiful benefits this wonderful plant has to offer!


The Outdoor Apothecary website is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. While we strive to provide accurate and up-to-date information, it is the reader’s responsibility to ensure proper plant identification and usage.

Please be aware that some plants are poisonous or can have serious adverse health effects. We are not health professionals, medical doctors, or nutritionists. It is essential to consult with qualified professionals for verification of nutritional information, health benefits, and any potential risks associated with edible and medicinal plants mentioned on this website.

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