Elderberries are delicious and a wonderful way to fight disease, but they are also hard to find if you don't look for them at the right time (or don't realize what you're looking at). It took me years and the help of the Foragers Unite! group on Facebook to finally start seeing them.
The University of Minnesota extension office says:
The common or American elderberry is a shrub growing from 4 to 12 feet tall. It is found in moist soils along roadsides, ditches, streams, and in fields. It has creamy clusters of tiny star-shaped flowers that become round, purplish-black berries in late summer and early fall.
That sums it up nicely. Take care when harvesting elderberries, as some parts of the plant are poisonous and they frequently grow around plants like nettle (one of my favorite patches is intermingled). And be sure to visit the elderberry.com Facebook page.
When you DO find your elderberry plants, mark them down so you can find them when they're ripe. One good option is to take a picture of the area with your digital camera and log it (being sure to include any landmarks), use a foraging app, or use Google maps.
In July and August, start looking along the wood margins for bushes with masses of white flower clusters. This is by far the easiest time to find elderberries.
Fun fact: If the flowers are picked early enough, they can be used to make Elderflower Cordial, a drink that goes back to the Roman Empire. The process starts by steeping the elderflower heads in a concentrated sugar solution and then it is refined further. The cordial is normally diluted with water before serving.
The developing berries
In August and September, the flowers begin developing into berries. The leaves are a dark green, and combined with the purplish stems the elderberry bushes really stand out. I recently found two new patches by spotting this color combination, one by an abandoned house and one at a rural intersection. I slowed down to confirm it, and now have two new plants to harvest.
The ripe berries
In September and October, the berries are finally ripe and ready to harvest. Look around carefully to locate clusters of berries like this. It's time to pick them when the weight of the berries turns the cluster upside-down.
To harvest them, simply break off the entire cluster, put it in your favorite foraging basket (we like to use half-bushel apple baskets), keep going until the basket is full, and then bring your bounty home!
Want to learn more about foraging? Be sure to subscribe to my column to be notified when I publish a new article! There's more of my favorite wild edible resources on Pinterest. And don't forget to check out my Cooking with Kids column!