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  • Rae Story + Clare Degenhardt

Gathering Elderberries

Elderberries ripen at different times from August to October

Elderberries are what grow after the soft white dusty elderflowers have fallen from their stems (or into delicious elderflower cordial that we all love so much). Often growing as a ‘weed’ bush, they have been used as medicines by our ancestors long into plant and human history. They are small trees, with delicate slender branches, and as they age, their branches grow twisted and gnarled – sometimes even covered with moss.

Last year we harvested wild elderberries separately but shared our produce. Rae made enough syrup to last well into the New Year to stave off coughs and colds. Clare made Elderberry Tincture with hers. This year we decided to pool our resources and set out on our bikes together, sharing our knowledge about the location of the trees and spending two lovely mornings in the low light and crisp air of autumn sniffing out the ripe berries.

We found that going out with a set purpose was such a lovely way to spend time together, doing work that we could do alone, but catching up on news and recent events in our lives as we cycled around south Manchester trying to remember and locate the various trees we had visited in years gone by. Our meandering Elderberry treasure hunt led us to explore new parts of the meadows, finding surprise new paths we had never taken before, and cycling back through unknown streets of Urmston.

Elder in leaf and an old tree without much greenery

We found that when the Elderberries are ripe they really hang heavily from the tree. The dark almost black berries, hanging like clusters of gemstones from bright red stems, really stand out from the green leaf and stem. (The red and green berries that have not yet ripened to the deep aubergine colour are best left on the tree, as they can cause upset stomach). Once you have your eye in, they really call out to you to let you know they are there. It’s as if they appear when your eyes and senses have relaxed, become more receptive, less proactive. But getting close to them is another matter.

Wading through meadows of dried grass and rosebay willow herb, almost as tall as us, avoiding wasp nests, dragging our bikes along, we found that nearly all of the Elders had a protective ring of tall nettles growing very close to the trunk of the tree. And it is true that the Elder in Rae’s garden also has such a ring of nettles. Almost like guardian protectors, they certainly slowed down our approach and made us mindful of our actions.

Elder with a climbing rose, notice the nettles at the base

Our pickings were abundant on the 4th September, the berries firm, plump and shiny, but by two weeks later the pickings were very small indeed and the fruit was softer, pungent with an odour of fermentation – really they smelled like wine! Curiously, Clare was walking in Derbyshire a couple of weeks later and found Elder there still in abundance and a good few weeks behind our season in Manchester.

We joked that we needed to bring a shepherd’s crook next time, to pull down the branches at the tops of the trees, which were tantalisingly full of berries out of reach. But it also felt good to leave these for the birds, who in turn can help to spread and sow the seeds, so new Elder saplings can germinate.

Despite our thin pickings on our second trip, we had such an energizing morning and we stumbled across a beautiful field of Michaelmas daisies, a breathtaking sight – and hoverflies were loving them too.

A surprising field of Michaelmas Daisies (Aster)

According to Ria Loohizen, Elder is a special and potent tree and has both good and bad folklore associated with it. Previously known as Mother Elder, in England the traditional Elder Goddess is called Lady Ellhorn and thought to contain her spirit. Elder was long respected and revered for her medicinal offerings and protection. Later, Christianity took on the heathen association of Elder with evil and during medieval times it was said that witches transformed themselves into Elders and became associated with bad luck. How discontinuous and fickle is history and the tales we tell to suit ourselves! Either way, it has never been in doubt that it is a powerful tree that provokes strong reactions in us.

Research is underway to explore the health benefits of Elder in relation to Coronavirus ( - which makes sense given its strong antiviral qualities and the previous research finding that it is helpful in treating seasonal flus : – we await the results with interest!

If you feel like foraging for Elderberries next autumn, it’s advisable to go with somebody who can confidently identify them (or an organised group), as there was an abundance of all kinds of berries, including well known health-giving berries like hawthorn, sloe, rosehips – and others, which are not so edible, and may be toxic.

You can buy Elderberry syrup from reputable independent herbalists, or Neals Yard, but you can also buy Sambucol in health food shops, this is also a syrup based on Elderberries. However, there is a potency to foraging your own wild produce. By looking, touching, smelling, noticing their habitat and what grows around them we build a connection with plants which is deep rooted and builds our experience and direct learning. This is what our ancestors have done for millennia, it is in our genes and in theirs.

Preparing the produce for winter use, straining berries, tincture and syrup

Our foraging expeditions were a lovely way to connect with nature, to enjoy the autumn sunshine, really breathe in the smells and sense the season on the turn, and to share the experience. Now we have gorgeously rich coloured syrup and tincture, and each time we take some, it brings back those connections, which feels like an extra benefit. Bottled autumn goodness to see us through the winter.

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