Ray's Garden Rows: Annual adventures with elderberries

Ray Mueller

Early to mid-September is when elderberries are ripe and ready for harvest to make jam, jelly, pies, juice, syrup or wine. Due to hungry birds, the downside is that very few have remained available on the landscape by early September in recent years.

A ripening head of elderberries offered fruit that could be put to any of several uses.

For those who don't know what elderberries are, they first appear with their white bunch blossoms by late June along roadsides, fence lines and other locations where the vegetation hasn't been disturbed for at least a couple of years. They're on branches of bushes that usually reach a height of 5 to 8 feet.

In the wild, there are about six different varieties of elderberries that I know about. The differences are in the size of the heads; the color and size of the berries; the evenness that berries on individual heads ripen; the time of ripening; and the ease of plucking or stripping the berries from the very fine twigs that hold them.

Former ideal locations

Over the years, most of the elderberries that I was able to pick in the wild were at several locations in northeast Fond du Lac County — all north of Highway 23. Some of the plants survive for several years while others are snuffed out because they don't get enough direct sunlight due or because of competition from grape vines, tall thistles, wild cucumbers, tall lowland grasses or other vegetation. Roadside mowing also wipes out some bushes.

For a few years, I had the privilege of picking an almost unlimited amount on the premises of a former fur farm property just north of Marytown in northeast Fond du Lac County. The owner graciously allowed me to pick there and even said I could pick the grapes and raspberries that also grew there (I never did that). The only thing I ever gave in return was a multi-fruit pie.

What I found within the fur farm was amazing. The elderberries — at least five species of them — were growing at the edge of the cages in which animals were formerly raised.

It's probable that the elderberries were seeded by birds who snacked on other elderberries growing in the area. Once those plants were established, they were well fertilized by the manure from the animals in the nearby cages.

That amazing venture came to an end after a few years and is over now although some elderberries are still growing there. Some of the plants disappeared naturally and others succumbed to the removal of the structures and the organized replanting of other species.

A week of disappointment

Another of the most productive spots I ever found in Fond du Lac County was along a back road not far from the entrance to a hunting club's grounds. It was probably in the 2nd or 3rd year after I discovered that spot that things turned to the downside.

The year was 2012. It was a summer of heat and drought that enveloped about the southern one third of Wisconsin and major parts of other states.

When I went to pick at that backroad spot in late August, I probably took home two or more grocery bags of elderberries from the plants on which they were already ripe. Those on the adjacent plants, which were a different variety, were not ripe yet.

I went back shortly after Labor Day but by then all of the berries had been snatched by birds. They were probably looking for anything with moisture after the prolonged drought.

That's been the story ever year since at the places in several counties where I noticed the blossoms, took a note about the location, and then checked again in late summer. Virtually all of the berries that one or more bird species can get to have become their treat. They've evidently become addicted to elderberries. Thankfully, the situation wasn't quite that dire in late August and early September this year but the ripening of the berries was very uneven.

Double trouble episodes

Whether I knew it or not, I had begun to prepare for what happened in 2012 and ever since in spring of 2010. That was when I purchased an order of elderberry seedlings through the bush and tree sale conducted by area county land and water conservation departments.

I planted those two dozen seedlings along a grass waterway because elderberries prefer growing at lowland spots. After a couple of years, it was evident that they were not growing like elderberries would. I wouldn't have planted them where I did if I'd known they weren't elderberries.

In the 3rd year, one of them blossomed in May (not elderberry blossoming time and certainly not the right type of flower). It produced a few blueberries. Even though I probably knew better, I thought maybe that bush was an oddball in the group.

More plants bloomed in the following years and they are all blueberries (not very productive). A few still haven't bloomed, and there seem to be at least two different varieties. Unless I cover the fruit, birds have been helping themselves to most of the blueberries.

Another episode in 2015

Not to be deterred, I obtained another set of 25 elderberry seedlings during the sale in the spring of 2015. By then, I had two locations to plant them but I knew trouble was ahead because there was little life evident in the roots and that they were not likely to take root, shall I say.

That proved to be true. One plant survived at one site and two did at the other. I informed the Outagamie County land and water conservation department, which then gave me a full refund on the seedlings that it had obtained from a nursery in Wisconsin.

Growth exploded this spring on the surviving plant at one site. By late August, a number of heads began to drop some berries although they were not ripe or tasty yet.

These were the largest heads I've ever seen with a few of them weighing about two pounds apiece. Weather conditions forced a somewhat premature harvest. Another disappointment was the maturity variation of the berries on individual heads.

Replenishing again

Still not deterred, I learned of a supplier west of Neenah who starts elderberry and many other fruit plants in the yard at his residence. In a trip there in mid-May this spring, I purchased six plants — three in pots and three from ground diggings — for $75.

Three were planted at each location. Five of them have survived. A couple of them popped a few blossom heads this summer. These are a variety that's different from the plant with the large heads.

And their berries are tasty — like they should be. So hope springs eternal for the future of harvesting elderberries at this time in future years.

Elderberry uses

In addition to making jam, jelly, or pies with elderberries, another possibility is the making of wine. It was about 15 years ago that I worked with a partner from Fond du Lac County on a winemaking project that also included about an equal volume of wild grapes. The wine made the first year was good but the second-year batch spoiled.

Some people believe in the benefits of elderberry juice or syrup for shortening the severity and duration of influenza. My late parents often made juice for that purpose. A couple in Chilton makes elderberry syrup for the same reason.

That belief has been verified by a couple of formal studies. One in Norway found elderberry syrup to be effective for adults in obtaining relief from type A influenza. An earlier study with both adults and children in Israel tabulated a 50 percent reduction in the severity and duration of type B influenza after taking elderberry syrup for three to five days.