July 29, 2017

Weeds that are Actually Medicine, Elderberries Part One

This is the time of year when the lyrics "Feelin fine on elderberry wine", from Elton John's song "Elderberry Wine", come to mind... It is elderberry season! I saw that the berries were ripe as I drove out to do errands the other day and a friend and I spent some lovely time this morning foraging for those ripe blacky purple berries.  This was no spur of the moment thing though; I made mental note in early May of where the best flower clusters were and have been checking back periodically to take photos for this post and to see how they are doing. Elderberries in our area usually ripen around the 1st of August. The harvest will go on for a few weeks, the top clusters ripening first and the rest of the bush ripening a little later on. The top berries are always the most beautiful berries, plump and juicy since they receive the best sun exposure. I call these "bird berries", since at 10 feet up there is no way I can reach them, so these berries are for the birds and for the continuation of the species... 

Elderberry wine, might make you feel fine, but if you really want to feel fine, use elderberries for their immune boosting and healing capabilities. Beyond the fact that elderberries are a great antioxidant, and very high in vitamin C, elderberries can help you stay healthy during cold and flu season and if you are unfortunate enough to get a cold or the flu taking elderberry can reduce the length of a cold or the flu by an average of 4 days. They can ease allergy symptoms and reduce the inflammation of a sinus infection. Elderberry can lower blood sugar levels and has been proven to be an anti-carcinogenic, so they can help to prevent cancer.  Elderberries taste good so getting a children to take it is a breeze!

I love to forage, I always feel so close to God when I am out in nature gathering food and medicine from the wild. It is provision for sustenance and healing that comes straight from creation! When foraging for elderberries, as with any plant taken from the wild,  it is important to be able to make a correct identification and to harvest responsibly.  I am careful to leave more than I harvest when foraging for anything in the wild, so that there is plenty of seed to fall to the ground to grow new plants and to keep the birds well fed. But more importantly I make sure that I am well educated on the identifying characteristics of the plants I forage. As with many edible or medicinal plants in the wild, elderberry has some unfriendly "look-a likes", so it is important to know what you are picking.

 There are actually several plants that resemble elderberry, particularly when in bloom. Commonly known as Queen Anne's Lace, the wild carrot has umbrella shaped flower clusters similar to elderberry, but then so does water hemlock, the most poisonous plant found growing wild in North America. And then there is Hercules Club, also sometimes called the toothache tree, which has blooms and berries that are very similar to elderberry. It was used to treat tooth-aches by Native Americans, but is generally considered toxic. I tell you all this not to scare you off from foraging, but to show you how to forage with safety and confidence. 


Elderberry, Sambucus nigra,  is native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. It is a woody shrub that can reach 10-12 feet in height. The trunk and branches are covered in bark, the leaves are pinnate, (have leaflets arranged on either side of the stem, usually opposite each other),  the leaves are serrated, with the veins running to the tips of the serrations or fading away before reaching the serrations.  There are umbrella- like clusters of cream to white, 5 petaled flowers in late spring.  It bears deep purple to black berries in late July to early September, depending on what temperature zone it is growing in.  The berries have medicinal properties as well as being useful for making wines, syrups, and  jellies. The juice of the berries is edible, but it is prudent to strain out the seeds as they are not edible and in quantity can be toxic, (much like apples, eat the fruit but not the seeds). 

 Elderberry flowers are a light cream to white in color with 5 petals and stamens that are arranged between petals. They appear on the scene in late Spring. They have a delicate scent and are useful in making teas, syrups and cordials. I prefer to pass on picking the flowers so that there will be lots of berries for use in making tonics and cough syrup later in the season. They are medicinal and can be used in tea or syrup form to treat sinus and allergy issues.

In late may the flowers have set fruit and the berries are getting bigger.
Berries are ripe and ready for picking a little early this year in the Piedmont of NC,
 start checking for ripe berries in late July, just to be safe, but most years they are ripe
in early August.

Elderberry leaves have fine veins that meander across the leaf fading away or
in some cases terminating at the tips.



Queen Anne's Lace, Daucus carota, is a native of Europe and Southeast  Asia, but has been naturalized in North America. It is a member of the carrot family and when young and tender is edible, but in my opinion not worth the trouble to forage and prepare, and due to its similarity to the fatally poisonous water hemlock, unless you are a seasoned forager, I recommend you skip foraging wild carrot. The plants stand in meadows and waste places and along the edges of plowed fields. It has umbrella shaped clusters of white flowers with a tiny burgundy "heart" set in the middle of the cluster. The plant has ferny leaves and stands up to 3 feet tall. 


Although the flowers of Queen Anne's Lace are similar to elderberry flowers, only in the deep south will they ever be blooming at the same time as elderberry. The height of the plant and it's ferny leaves are a dead give away that they are not elder flowers. Even if you mistook them for elder flowers, you are safe, since they aren't toxic.

Water Hemlock,  Cicuta douglasii, the most poisonous plant in the North America, has flowers alarmingly similar to elderberry and Queen Anne's lace. Where it would not hurt you to mistake Queen Anne's Lace for elderberry, water hemlock would most likely prove fatal if you made a tea or syrup from its flowers. Water Hemlock blooms at the same time as elderberry and the flowers are similar. Fortunately, there are some details that will help you not to make a fatal mistake. Hemlock does not produce berries, so there is less likelihood of mistaking hemlock for elderberry if you wait for berries to be evident. Water hemlock has an herbaceous stem, hollow, smooth and green, sometimes with pale burgundy spots  or stripes on the stems. Elderberry trunk and branches are covered with silvery grey bark so if it has a woody bark it is not water hemlock. Although elderberry can be found in wet areas, it is far more likely to be water hemlock if you find it growing in marshes or in a water course. Checking the stem is a good way to tell them apart.  Like elderberry, hemlock had pinnate, serrated leaves, but where elderberry leaves have fine veins that terminate at the tips, hemlock has pronounced veins that go across the leaves and terminate in the notches of the serrated leaf edge. Hemlock flowers are in loosely formed clusters of tiny white flowers that do not set fruit.

Hemlock leaves have deep veins that run straight to the notches, not to the tips of the serrated leaves.

Hemlock has loosely formed clusters of tiny white flowers with fuzzy yellowish green centers.

Hercules Club, Zanothoxylum clava- hurculis,  is grows in the deep south and in the coastal areas of North and South Carolina. The leaves like elderberry are pinnate, but unlike elderberries the  leathery leaves are smooth, not serrated and are held on branches that can be 3 feet in length. The clusters of flowers are large and creamy yellow, the berries look similar to elderberries, but are larger and the flower/fruit clusters are born high and above the leaves. The most defining feature of the Hercules Club is the trunk. Like the elderberry, the trunk and branches of  Hercules Club are covered in bark,  but they are also  covered with thorns.


Ouch!


Sometimes it is helpful to me to see things side by side so I can compare and contrast their characteristics. So here is a side by side photo for comparison.
This is a side by side comparison of the flowers of all four plants, the top two are  non poisonous, the bottom two range from toxic to deadly.
Oh, and there is one other area that there might be confusion...

Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is common throughout the United States. It grows to 8 feet with smooth purplish stems growing from a central crown. The leaves are long and grow alternately along the stems .Pokeweed's berries look similar to elderberry in color but are larger and are not in loose hanging clusters like elderberries, but hang on elongated clusters called racemes.  Poke weed is toxic so do not eat leaf , berry, stem or root. It is said that the young leaves are edible if boiled in three changes of water before trying to eat them. But in my opinion, if I have to boil something in three changes of water before it is safe to eat, it isn't edible... just sayin's all...

Poke berries are great for drawing birds but although they look tasty, they are very toxic
even when they are green. 
So now that you know what to look for and what not to pick, why don't you cast about and see if you can find some clusters of elderberries in your area? In my next post on this subject I will give you a recipe for a simple elderberry syrup to use as an immune booster  in the colder months ahead.  Happy foraging!

Oh and just so everyone knows... this post is for educational purposes and is not meant to be used to treat or diagnose illness.  Your judgement and personal research are the best tools you have when foraging. In other words, don't just take my word for it...  :) Go outside and explore, there is a lot to discover in this big ol' world!
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