If I had to choose my favourite wild food, I think it would be Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). This plant is abundant, easy to harvest, versatile, delicious, and beneficial! There’s a bumper crop of Elderberries on PEI this year (Photo 1) and they were ripe nearly two weeks earlier than usual. I collected about 15 pounds on Labour Day and spent last weekend processing them.
Walk into the natural supplements section of any local pharmacy and you’ll find a variety of Elderberry products, most claiming to help boost your immune system. Medical research has found evidence to support this but has looked mainly at Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), a European species. Our native species has been shown to have similar chemistry to its European cousin, so it is reasonable to presume it offers similar benefits. Common Elderberries are also very high in antioxidants, second only to Chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) among our wild fruits, and far higher than Blueberries.
Common Elderberry is found across PEI in damp areas such as along streams and in roadside ditches. An easy way to find it is to look during its flowering period in mid-July. The flat-topped, white flower clusters (Photo 2) are easy to spot along roadsides even at highway speed, and you can mark your spots for later. Those flowers are edible, and can be dipped in batter and fried to make fritters or processed into tea or syrup; I prefer to let them mature into berries. It’s important to remember that all other parts of the plant are toxic, and Elderberries must be cooked before eating.
Whether you enjoy Elderberries for their health benefits or just their taste, the delicious products you can make from them are (almost) endless. The hardest part is separating the small berries from their twigs. You can make this job easier by tossing your harvest in the freezer overnight; the frozen berries will fall right off (Photo 3). From here, I put my Elderberries in a pot, add 25% of their volume in water, and simmer for an hour or so mashing them from time to time. I then strain to get Elderberry juice.
Elderberry juice is nice lightly sweetened on its own or added to carbonated water or mixed drinks. It can also be made into jelly, syrup, or – my personal favourite – mulled and mixed with Brandy to make Elderberry Rob (Photo 4). The rob is nice immediately but improves with age. I make it each September and enjoy it as my annual Christmas treat! You can find my recipes for Elderberry syrup, jelly, and rob in the Wild Food Recipes section of this blog.
You may still be able to find some wild Elderberries, and I encourage you to try this delicious and beneficial part of PEI untamed!