When Are Elderberries Ripe?

When Are Elderberries Ripe?

When are Elderberries ripe and ready to harvest?

If making your own Elderberry Pie or Wine is on your bucket list, knowing when elderberries are ripe and ready to harvest is an important detail! The trick to a successful harvest is being able to identify fully ripe berries, and harvesting only those. Typically, elderberries are ripening throughout the US from late July through September.

Identifying Elderberry Bushes

The first thing you have to be able to do is to identify an elderberry bush. If you have elderberries planted in your home garden then you already know what they look like. For those of you who want to harvest wild elderberries, here are a couple of important identification tricks:

1. Elderberry is a shrub that will grow to 10 feet or more.  Elderberries that are growing at the edge of woodlands can get even taller as they reach for the light, as is true for this Magnolia specimen growing in my back yard.  Elderberry bushes that are growing in full sun will have a more compact, dense shrub appearance.

2. Elderberry has a smooth, light colored bark speckled with darker spots that are slightly pronounced “bumps”. These bumps are actually lenticels, which are pores the plant uses to exchange gasses between the atmosphere and its internal tissues.

3. Elderberry has opposite compound leaves, often with 4 or more pairs of leaves per stem.

Identifying Ripe Elderberries

Elderberries have developed a neat survival strategy that ensures successful propagation. This strategy is to spread the flowering and ripening of fruit over a long period of time, with the first flowers appearing in May, and the last of the fruit ready to harvest in September. It is not unusual in July to find an elderberry flower, bunches of elderberries in the process of ripening and a ripe bunch of elderberries ready for picking all on the same bush!  This uneven flowering and fruit production strategy ensures that a passing insect invasion will not destroy all the flowers, and happily it also ensures that a passing flock of birds will not eat all the berries before you can have some, too.

Therefore, to be a successful elderberry harvester, you need to adopt the same strategy. Late July and early August is the time to begin visiting your elderberry bush on a regular, if not daily, basis.  Elderberries go from green to dark purple over a period of weeks.  The following picture is of an un-ripe cluster of berries that should not be harvested.

Look for clusters of berries that are deep purple-black in color with a plump appearance.  Ripe clusters of berries are heavier than unripe clusters and tend to hang upside down.

Elderberry Bush with Ripening Fruit

The Smooth Bark of the Elderberry Bush

Elderberry Leaves

Elderflowers and Elderberries in various stages of ripening on the same bush

Un-ripe Cluster of Elderberries

Ripe Cluster of Elderberries

Harvesting Elderberries

Elderberries are exceptionally perishable fruit, which is why you never find them at farmer's markets or at your local grocery.  Once harvested you have less than 12 hours to either cook them or freeze them, as they will begin to ferment quickly, so plan your harvesting day accordingly.  Bring a pair of clippers or kitchen sheers and a clean bowl or bag with you when you head out to harvest elderberries.  Simply clip the "hand" of berries and place in your bowl or bag, and repeat until you have enough for your recipe.

Cleaning Elderberries

Fill your sink with cold water and immerse each hand of berries in the cold water.  Give them a twirl or two to rid them of unwanted passengers like insects and dirt.  Rinse them again under running water and then set them on a towel to drip dry for about 15 minutes or so.

Removing Elderberries from their Stem

There are a couple methods for removing the tiny berries from the stems.  You'll notice that the tiny stems that attach the berries to the larger stems are fibrous and a bit stubborn; de-stemming elderberries is definitely the most time consuming part of the job.

By Hand:  Gently tug the berries free from their micro-stems and place in a clean bowl.

"Forking Elderberries": Use the tines of a  fork to strip the berries free from their micro-stems.  Do this over a large bowl as the berries tend to fly free and if you aren't careful you'll have berries all over your floor!

The Freezer Method:  This method works great if you can tolerate a few micro-stems in your recipe.  After your berries have been cleaned and drip dried, place them in a freezer bag and put them straight into the freezer for at least 24 hours. (Longer is fine!)  Take the frozen bag of berries out of the freezer and gently slap the bag against the counter to knock the berries off the micro-stems.  When most of the berries are free, open the bag and remove the stems.  You'll probably finding yourself pulling a few more lone stems out of the berries; work quickly as the berries thaw pretty fast.   Using the Freezer Method works well for Elderberry Syrup and Elderberry Extract because both require cooking the elderberries in water.  Most of the remaining micro-stems will float to the top of the water and can be easily removed by hand.  We used the freezer method the other day and made this short video that takes you from harvest to de-stemming the berries.  Which ever method you use, we wish you the best of times with your elderberry harvest this year!
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