It seems that in this world of 60-hour-workweeks and take-out food, some of our simpler pleasures have been forgotten. Very few children or adults for that matter, know the pure joy of popping a sun-warmed berry in their mouth while standing surrounded by bushes full of vine-ripened bounty. I can wistfully recall those times and each summer the roadsides and fields beckon me.
My daily errands take me down a stretch of four-lane highway on a regular basis and I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful white umbels of elderberries as the flowers bloomed in late Spring. Their big flat blooms nodded over the right-of-way fence like beach umbrellas at a fancy resort. I admired them as I headed about my business and thought to myself that the birds would have a real feast come August.
As summer stretched on and the long, hot, humid days became even longer and hotter, I forgot about the lovely cheerful blooms that greeted me as I drove about my business. I had succumbed to the ratrace and buried my instincts inside the ever-present need to deal with modern life which consisted of job, mortgage, taxes and the daily necessities of what it takes to stay afloat in today’s society.
Oh, but then came August. Sweltering hot and humidity that ran down one’s back in small rivers. Dashing from one air conditioned building to another and barely daring to take a breath in the oven that summer had become. My air- conditioned car was a haven between errands, until I caught sight of that unmistakable glossy blackness that could only be one thing. The elderberries were ripe! They hung in weighty masses over the fence along the four-lane and taunted me. For three days, I drove down that stretch of road and longingly looked at the heavy heads of berries. I didn’t need them. We don’t even eat jelly as a rule. I didn’t have time to fool with them. There were many more tasks that were higher on my to-do list than making jelly that I’d probably just give away. But…..there they were. They were calling my name and not just a little nagging buzz like a mosquito would make…no, these were screaming for me to rescue them from the roadside. “Come get us, please! We want to be something besides bird food!”
On the fourth morning, they had me. I could resist no longer. Gathering up a couple of five gallon buckets, my garden shears, and actually putting on heavy shoes suitable for stepping where one could not see, made it final. The elderberries were coming home. I headed out to the right-of way and started snipping them into my buckets, one big glossy head at a time.
In no time I’d filled my buckets to overflowing, much to the amusement of my neighbors and the curiosity of one County Deputy. They all know me by now anyway and one more odd task didn’t seem to surprise anyone. The birds didn’t go hungry either; I left even more berries than I took.
Back to my kitchen I went with my bounty and started the task of preparing the berries for jelly. I pulled the tiny, seedy globes from the stems and put them in my biggest stockpot with a little water to keep them from sticking. Simmering on low to release the juices took about forty minutes. I strained the juice from the pulp and the juice was so dark that light barely came through it. I knew better, but had to sample the raw juice. Elderberry juice isn’t exactly fit for consumption in it’s ‘raw’ state. It has a slightly insipid, sour taste that is best combined with sugar or other juices to bring out its full potential.
I made jelly with my harvest, adding the juice of a couple of lemons to boost the pectin content. The result was a beautiful, rich, dark purple jelly with a unique flavor. I ended up giving most of it away, just as I predicted, but the ghosts of my ancestors were looking with approval over my shoulder the whole time I worked on it.
As with all wild foods, please verify exactly what you harvest. Be aware that pesticides and poisons may have been used nearby. Also, do not trespass on private property, and always ask permission before you pick.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 19, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)