I recently read the absolutely fabulous book, We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich. Originally published in 1942, the book chronicles the day-to-day life of a family living in Maine isolated from the outside world, with the exception of the Sears mail order catalog. One of my favorite reflections in the book is about how the author would canoe through a network of placid lakes surrounded by lush forest to a large patch of wild raspberry bushes. What could be better than organic, beautiful, fresh raspberries? Organic, beautiful, fresh, and free raspberries of course. After reading this passage in the book I began to wonder—certainly there is some native, wild fruit that I am simply ignoring? I know some people have wild raspberry bushes. Much to my mother’s dismay I used to pick from one as a child (I only made this mistake of telling her once). But finding one involves trekking through dense brush and if you are lucky enough to find one, you must deal with the thorns of the bush.
But I did remember identifying an elderberry bush a few years ago, I had identified it because I was actually trying to kill it. Luckily the native elderberry won out and the Annabelle Hydrangea I wanted in its spot was moved. So, inspired by the spirit of this author in the 1940s, I decided to embrace whatever wild fruit I had. First, I did some extensive reading and identification of my elderberry bush to assure that it was indeed an edible fruit. Upon research I realized I actually was somewhat familiar with this native fruit. Elderberry — Sambucus canadensis, right away when I saw sambucus I remembered the Italian liqueur sambuca. Flavored with elderberries, sambuca has a very unique and tart taste. So I suppose elderberries were not total aliens to my palette. According to Oklahoma State University Fact Sheet HLA– 6256–2, “Elderberries are native to many parts of North America. The fruit of this lesser known crop is often harvested from the wild and has a variety of uses, such as making jams, jellies, pies, juice and wine. Elderberries have significant potential health benefits, including high levels of vitamin C, iron and antioxidants”
If you do not have wild elderberries on your property, and are interested in planting a few of these bushes, luckily they are quite easy to grow. They do best in partial shade (morning sun is best) with excellent drainage and air circulation. To maximize fruit production Oklahoma State University Fact Sheet HLA-6256–2 recommends: “Elderberries are only partially self-fruitful. Two or more cultivars should be planted near each other to provide for cross-pollination. Since wild plants will be genetically different, two or more different plants will act as pollinizers if they bloom within the same timeframe.”
The Fact Sheet also states the small effort will be rewarded in spades in a few short years with a sizeable harvest, noting that, “In the first year after planting an elderberry, a small crop will be produced. Production on mature plants starting in the third year can range from 12 to 15 pounds per plant. Harvest will occur from mid-August to mid-September, depending on location and cultivar. Fruiting clusters usually ripen over a period of 5 to 15 days.” Requiring much less care and maintenance than other small fruits, elderberries are a great starter crop to home food production.
One major drawback of elderberries contrary to other berries are the seemingly millions of stems. Each individual berry has a stem that must be removed before cooking. Each berry is tiny, and it takes a fair amount of time to remove each stem from each berry before the berries are ready to cook. It is not particularly difficult to remove these stems, just very time consuming.
I figured a jam would be a useful ingredient to have, especially in the fall. The tart and sweet flavor of the elderberry jam will make a great base for sauces and reductions to serve with duck and pork, or even a flavoring for a vinaigrette. Really the possibilities are endless, and I am very excited to add this new flavor to my cooking. While I am not sure I would be comfortable sharing wild raspberry bushes with massive bears as Mrs. Rich shares in We Took to the Woods, I certainly am thrilled to learn more about this native fruit.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.