Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 22, 2008

Respect Your Elders

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:42 pm

   Today is the first official day of autumn, so I celebrated by trying something new- elderberry jam.  My ability to do this was made possible by some old friends who gave me some of their freshly made product. We were talking elderberry abut a month ago and I asked them what they were planning to make. Although I expected them to say wine or pie, jam was their ultimate answer.  Before I could stop myself, I almost demanded that they give me some since I had never tried it before.  I then back peddled a bit, out of pure courtesy to my elders, and soft-peddled the demand into a “boy, I’d sure like to try some of that.”  Being good folk, they instantly promised to deliver a sample just as soon as it was done.

    My delivery arrived a few days ago and I put it to work on some buttered toast this morning. The photo above is a bit misleading. I don’t normally dine using fine china, Rogers Brothers knives, placemats, or artistically placed leaves.  I, in fact don’t normally “dine” on breakfast or even “eat” it, period. I just felt this occasion called for a bit more flair than usual.    The jam was terrific (here, take a taste – oops, I’m sorry you can’t do that can you).  I can tell you that it was mildly sweet with a nice tart aftertaste. The taste was uniquely elderberry and unlike any other berry concoction.

  Elderberry is one of those old-fashioned fruits that have fallen out of human favor.  They once were the staple of every autumn table.  Part of this dis-favoring has to do with the amount of work required to harvest the berries and the fact that the plant can be toxic.  It would seem that these are legitimate concerns, but not really.

  The plants themselves, called Marsh Elderberry, are common low growing shrubs. They rarely top 10 feet in height and favor the moist soils around wetlands.  The leaves are pinnately compound, which is a botanically elite way to say that the leaves are made up of  two to four pairs of leaflets arranged along a central stem. True to its shrubby nature, it sends up multiple pithy stems and presents a low rounded profile.  These stems, because they have soft spongy cores, are easily hollowed out.  In years past, they were converted into dandy little pea shooters and maple syrup spiles but because the plants contain calcium oxylate crystals and light doses of cyanide such uses aren’t recommended today. As far as I know, no one has ever dropped dead from the effects of elderberry poisoning, but a few have gotten a wee bit sickly because of it.

    Our American Marsh Elderberry happen to be very closely related to the European Elderberry which is responsible for an interesting legend. It was believed that sleeping under an elderberry will result in a state of intoxication and that Fairies and elves are said to enter into our world from under the cover of elderberries.  Knowing that people tend to see things such as pink elephants when intoxicated, it is little wonder that a few elderberry wine drinkers might have claimed visions of little people with wings and pointy hats.

  The only safe thing left to do with the elderberry is to eat the berries. Yes, they too are full of noxious chemicals when green, but upon ripening become sapien friendly. Cooking them completely breaks down any remaining alkaloids and glycosides and converts them into pure goodness. 

  Elderberries flower in mid-summer. They produce multiple large flat topped clusters of tiny white flowerets. By early autumn, these clusters are ripe with thousands of tiny dark purple berries (see here). Each berry is only a few millimeters across but the sizable clusters droop under their combined weight. Collecting these clusters is easy enough, but separating out the berries requires use of a comb. It takes a lot of clusters and a lot of patience to gather up enough fruit to make anything out of them. 

  I didn’t ask what recipe my friends used to make their jam, fearing that if they told me they’d have to kill me.  According to the Ball Blue Book, however, you add 6 cups of sugar to 2 quarts of crushed berries and ¼ cup of vinegar. The whole mix is brought to a boil, stirred until it thickens, and then poured into the jars while still hot.

  If I happen to spot a few elves tonight, I will have to chalk it up to the magical effects of the autumn equinox and not the gifted jam.


  1. Too bad I don’t have any left to share. A good thing can only be spread so far, I guess.

    Comment by Gerry Wykes — October 7, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

  2. I am being told that elderberries have 2 times the VIT A as carrots. Really???

    Comment by Elberberries — October 10, 2009 @ 3:42 am

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