In order to tell if elderberries are ripe, you need to know the type of elderberry with which you're dealing. Several types of elderberry shrubs are available, each with many common names and a generally similar appearance. The time of flowering, timing of berry production and berry color all provide valuable identifying information you can use to differentiate among the elderberries.
European elder (Sambucus nigra) is also called common elder or black elder. Black elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is also called American elder or sweet elder. Both of these types of elderberries produces fruits that ripen from late July to September and turn purple to black when ripe. These darker berries are the elderberries most often used in food and drink recipes.
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Red elderberry (Sambucus pubens) produces red berries. The North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension lists this elderberry as a poisonous plant. Its berries are not considered edible. Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), also known as scarlet elder or stinking elderberry, is another red-berried elder. Its berries are bright red when ripe. Resources differ regarding whether the berries are edible. While some use the berries in jellies and wines after cooking, the berries "may be toxic if taken internally without sufficient preparation," according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The University of Wisconsin at Green Bay Herbarium lists the berries as not edible.
Flowering and Berry Production
Elderberries can be raised in the home garden or picked from wild bushes. Red elderberry shrubs produce yellowish-white flowers in May. They have smaller flower clusters, approximately 3 to 5 inches in size. Black elderberry shrubs have larger flower clusters, 6 to 10 inches in size, which appear in June to July. Generally, black elderberries ripen to a deep purple or black color in late August to early September, while red elderberries develop a scarlet red color and are ready in late June to July. Elderberries are a source of phosphorous, potassium and vitamin C.
Harvest and Use
Harvest the berries by collecting a full cluster of fruits. Immediately place the clusters in a container because the berries tend to fall from the clusters. Elderberries may be used in making juice, wine, jelly and syrup. The fruits are also useful as a dessert filling. You may can or freeze whole berries for later use. The berries are usually cooked because fresh, uncooked berries are bland and have an unpleasant astringent flavor. The Sambucus canadensis cultivar "Nova" has sweeter berries that lack this astringency.
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; Plant Fact Sheet: American Elder; February 2002
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; Plant Fact Sheet: Red Elderberry; Pete Gonzalves, et al.; July 2007
- West Virginia University Extension Service; Elderberries -- Black Elderberry, Red Elderberry; Linnie Coon
- Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service; Growing Elderberries in Oklahoma; Eric T. Stafne
- University of Wisconsin at Green Bay Herbarium: Shrubs of Wisconsin: Sambucus Racemosa L.
- North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension, Department of Horticultural Science; Poisonous Plants of North Carolina: Sambucus Pubens; Dr. Alice B. Russell, et al.; 1997
- Colorado State University Extension; PlanTalk Colorado -- Elderberries; October 2010
- Cornell University Department of Horticulture; Minor Fruits: Elderberries; November 2010
- University of Connecticut Plant Database: Sambucus Canadensis
- Utah State University Extension; Elderberries; Georgia C. Lauritzen, et al.; 1992