Elderberries are one of the most popular fruits in Europe and North America. They have been cultivated since ancient times and their use dates back to Roman Empire period. Since then they have become very popular in the United States and Canada. The fruit of the elderberry tree (Rubus idaeus) grows up to 10 feet tall with a diameter of 2 inches. It has three lobes, each containing a single seed which contains approximately 30% alcohol by volume when ripe. When ripe, the berries contain 60% alcohol. The leaves of the plant are edible and used in many different ways such as making tea or juice.
The name “elder” comes from the fact that it looks like an old fashioned teapot with a spout at top. It is usually red, purple or green in color and is found growing wild throughout Europe and North America.
There are several cultivars of the species, but all are native to Europe and North America. One of the most common types grown in gardens is Rubus vernalis var. rubescens . These plants produce large clusters of white flowers in early spring followed by small black berries that ripen into black berries in late summer or fall.
Growing elderberry trees requires careful attention to soil fertility, watering and pruning. Different varieties require slightly different growing conditions, but most thrive in moist soil rich in organic matter.
They prefer full sun to partial shade and moderate watering. They are relatively fast growing plants, but do not tolerate wet soil. The best soil for productive plants is one that is fertile, sandy and moist, but drained.
Elderberry trees are typically propagated by cuttings or seed. Cuttings are generally easier and faster than growing from seeds.
It is also possible to divide existing plants and grow them into new plants, but this takes more time and experience.
Elderberry trees prefer soil that is rich in organic matter. A good mix for growing elderberries is two parts sand or loam, one part compost and one part manure.
Before growing elderberries on a large scale, it is best to test the soil to determine if additional nutrients are needed. This can be done through a soil testing lab.
Elderberry plants prefer full sun to light shade. They do not grow well in direct sunlight in hot weather, so it is best to plant them in dappled sunlight or heavy shade.
Elderberry cuttings will grow roots more easily if they are kept under partial shade indoors for two to three weeks before planting outside. They should be planted when all danger of frost has past and the soil temperature is at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Elderberry plants grow best when they are pruned regularly to allow for maximum light and air flow. The roots should be pruned every three to four years in late winter.
They should be pruned anytime they are beginning to crowd each other or when a stem has been broken or damaged beyond repair.
Elderberries produce both flowers and fruit on last year’s wood, so it is important to make sure that the plant is pruned correctly before they begin growing new stems. The best way to prune is to thin the stems out so that they are around two to four inches apart.
After that, any new stems that grow should be removed right away.
Elderberry plants can take anywhere from three to five years before they start bearing fruit, but once they do, they will keep producing for up to thirty years. Elderberries are a great plant to have if you would like to make your own wine, syrup, jam or juice.
They can also be used to make preserves, marinades, baked goods, syrups and more. The flowers are also edible.
Elderberries have been used for centuries as both food and medicine. Native Americans used the berries for many things, from pain relief to fevers to skin conditions.
The leaves were also dried and used as tobacco when smoking was banned in certain places.
Elderberry plants can grow quite tall, so you should make sure that they have plenty of room to grow and are not being cramped by other trees or shrubs that will compete with them for nutrients and water. It is best to plant elderberry plants at least thirty feet away from other trees or shrubs.
Elderberry bushes prefer full sun, but can grow in partial shade. They need a lot of water and nutrients, so they should not be planted in areas where the soil is rocky or shallow.
The roots cannot establish themselves in these conditions and will not be able to take in the nutrients that they need to produce healthy fruit. It is a good idea to plant them near the edge of a garden or field where they will have room to grow and can benefit from the extra nutrients in the soil.
Elderberries are not usually bothered by diseases, but they can fall victim to insects, birds and hungry wildlife. To prevent this, around planting time, you should create a fence or netting around the area where you will be growing your elderberry plants.
This will prevent larger animals from eating the berries before you get a chance to. If birds are a problem where you live, it might be an idea to place netting around the branches of your elderberry plants so that the berries will at least have a chance of ripening.
Elderberries can be harvested when they are a dark blue or black color. Picking them too early will result in them not ripening, so it is important to leave them on the bush until they reach the correct color.
After picking, the berries will need to be cleaned. Set them out in the sun for at least two days and then rinse them off before you use them.
You can dry the berries to use throughout the year, like you would dry beans or herbs. Spread them out on a screen or a paper bag (don’t use wax paper) in a single layer and place them in a dark area where they will stay dry and not be disturbed.
Leave them there for at least two weeks, then store them in glass jars out of direct sunlight.
Elderberry flowers can be used to make wine, syrup and jams.
Whichever way you choose to use your elderberries, you will find that these versatile berries will provide you with enough food for the whole year if you plant enough bushes. Native Americans used to call them “medicine” berries for good reason.
They truly are a gift from nature and one of the most useful plants that you can have in your home garden.
2 cups lean, dried bison or deer meat (or venison)
3 cups dried, unsweetened buffalo berries (or substitute dried cranberries)
Plus 1-2 tbsp melted fat (such as lard or vegetable oil) and something to put it in such as a canning jar lid, a small plastic bag (Ziploc) or even a few twigs (forks work great)
Grind the dried meat in a meat grinder or chop it up finely with a knife. It’s best to do this in small batches (maybe 1/2 lb at a time).
Spread the meat out on a cookie sheet or cooking tray and place it in an oven that has been preheated to 275 degrees. Dry the meat until it is crisp. It helps to rotate the tray so that it dries evenly. It will take a few hours, perhaps even as long as 6. While the meat is drying, place the dried berries in a saucepan and heat them over medium heat until they have absorbed all the moisture they can (this will take a half hour or more and you should keep stirring often). Once the berries are soft (and no longer sticky) remove them from the heat and spread them out on a cookie sheet and place it in the oven with the meat. They will dry more quickly than the meat and will be dry in about an hour or so. Let them cool until they are at room temperature.
Putting it all together
Place the dried meat in a large bowl and add drops of the fat (lard, vegetable oil or even bacon grease). Stir it in with a fork.
You want to add enough fat to make a paste but no more. Stir the dried berry powder into the fat paste. You can add a bit more fat if you find you haven’t used enough.
Pack it all into a storage container and press down hard with a flat object to squeeze out as much air as you can. (I use the bottom of a small ceramic crock).
Cover it securely, leaving no airspace inside.
Pemmican will keep for many years (presuming it is kept away from mice and other rodents).
It can be eaten as is, but it has a very strong taste that some might find unpalatable. Many native Americans would thin it with a bit of honey or syrup to make it more palatable.
You could also add it to a stew to thicken it or even use it as you would nuts in a tray of granola.
If you want to make it into a paste, just add more fat and heat it gently until it liquefies. It will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
There are many other ways to use pemmican. Here are some suggestions:
Parched or roasted pemmican is great on a hike. Crush it up and mix it with melted fat and wrap it in parchment paper to make a “chocolate bar” that will keep for years.
Rolled into pellets and shot from a sling it is an excellent hunting option. It’s very fast and very powerful.
Use the lean meat and add just enough fat to hold it together. 1/2 lb will provide a full days worth of food and shoot straighter than any bullet you can make without a rifle.
Another native American recipe was to crush it up and boil it with a little water to make a gravy. They didn’t have any spices so you’ll need to add those yourself.
You can use honey or sorghum to bind pemmican into a bar that can be eaten without adding fat. It’s a bit like eating a granola-bar but with the consistency of hardtack (the very dry unsweetened biscuits).
Pemmican is a great way to use up any meat scraps or organ meats that you might have. Even treats such as beef lungs can be used (and are very high in vitamin C).
Any fat can be used (even candle wax). Just chop everything up and mix it together.
Links and Reading
US Army Survival Manual
Lots of good information in the following US Army manual on “Survival in an arctic environment”. It is pretty much the same as surviving in any other environment, but the section about finding water and making fire are worthwhile reading for anyone.
This .PDF file from the University of Missouri gives a good overview of pemmican along with some historical notes.
Primitive Wilderness Living and Survival Skills
This website has lots of good information on hunting, trapping, navigation and more (including pemmican recipes).
Native American Cookbooks
Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico – Published in 1918, this five-volume reference work contains information about the history, culture, language and more of the indigenous people of North America from the Arctic all the way to the tip of South America. It contains descriptions and histories of some of the tribes as well as many facets of Native American life, including religion, medicine, games, and vocabulary.
It is a fascinating look into a lost world. While some of the information may be inaccurate due to the passage of time and biased or poorly-done research in the past, it is still a very valuable resource.
The cookbook collection includes an 1896 publication called “Ashcroft Indian Cook Book: recipes of the Lake Tribe” (Amazon). It contains 88 recipes from the tribes located in the Lake Superior region of Wisconsin.
It is a fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of the people who lived in that region.
Each recipe includes a description of the ingredients and instructions for preparation, as well as a small introduction about where the recipe came from and any interesting facts. Many of the recipes include information about how the Native Americans used every part of the included ingredients, such as using the veins and scraps of meat from deer alongside the organs to make a soup.
In addition to the wide variety of meat recipes, there are also fruit cakes, breads, and other vegetable dishes as well.
The cookbook is a fascinating look into the lives of people who lived off the land and waterways of a region now known as Wisconsin (at the time it would have been considerably different). It is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in native american history or just historical cooking in general.
The recipes themselves tend to be basic in nature (not surprising given the ingredients available to Native Americans living at the time), but it is still interesting to see how they fished and hunted for food using bows, traps, and other tools. Not surprisingly, venison turns up a lot in the meat recipes including things like deer steak, marrow jello, soup, and more.
There are some wild fruit desserts included as well, along with a few others.
Some of the more interesting recipes included in the cookbook are listed below for your interest:
Boiled Deer Meat
To one level pint of water allow a quarter of a pound of lean meat or a half pound of fat, add salt if desired. When the water boils steadily, put in the meat and skim.
Let it simmer, but not boil fast or furiously. The meat must be cooked through, or it will not taste good. After an hour of gentle simmering it should be ready to serve.
Fried Deer Liver
One half pound of deer liver cut in slices, one egg, beaten, and enough bread or cracker crumbs to cover the bottom of the pan. Fry slowly as you would pan-cake, turning when brown on each side.
Salt to taste and serve with apple butter.
Sources & references used in this article:
The morphological and antioxidant characteristics of inflorescences within wild-growing genotypes of elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.). by VH Sedláčková, O Grygorieva… – …, 2018 – pdfs.semanticscholar.org
The cottage garden… part 2 by L Bourke – Warm Earth, 2012 – search.informit.com.au
Acyl spermidines in inflorescence extracts of elder (Sambucus nigra L., Adoxaceae) and elderflower drinks by GC Kite, S Larsson, NC Veitch, EA Porter… – Journal of agricultural …, 2013 – ACS Publications
Nymphs’ Gardens. by MG Watkins – Longman’s magazine, 1882-1905, 1893 – search.proquest.com
Chemical profiles and antioxidant activity of black elder (Sambucus nigra L.)-A Review by D McBride – Theatre Ireland, 1992 – JSTOR
Elderflower syrup as a product niche in health and wellness beverage market by GS Petruţ, S Muste, C Mureșan, A Păucean… – Bulletin UASVM Food …, 2017 – core.ac.uk
Randolph Stow’s The Girl as Green as Elderflower by D Jacob – 1965 – Taplinger Pub Co