Elderberry heaven

Davis is blessed with an abundance of elderberry shrubs (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea and possibly other species). In our part of town, there are elderberries along the greenbelts which presumably were planted by the Parks & Facilities department. In addition, there are elderberries along the dry streambed of Putah Creek; these might be wild.

We frequently take walks on our greenbelt, and in the summer when the elderberry shrubs are loaded with ripe berries we invariably run into people who have no idea what they are. For some reason, elderberries have fallen out of fashion—into obscurity, even. I think it’s a pity because the shrub itself is attractive as a landscape plant, and the berries are a tasty treat if prepared right.

I see people now and then pop a berry or two into their mouth just to spit them out a split second later. Yes, elderberries are very sour as is, and I would never eat them that way. But in pies and jams they are wonderful, adding bright acidity and a pleasantly bitter undertone. They also make great juice which can be combined with other fruit juices (think pomegranate-elderberry!) and they can be transformed into elderberry wine and elderberry liqueur. One year we gave small bottles of home-made elderberry liqueur to our friends for Christmas, and it was a big hit.

If you’ve never tried elderberries, take a look around the next time you’re out and about. Chances are there are some growing right where you live.

Tree-sized blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea)
Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) in bloom (late May)
Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) in bloom
Flower head (umbrel) consisting of hundreds of individual flowers;
these are not quite open yet…
…while these are
This little guy clearly likes elder flowers.
In some European countries elder flowers are used in cooking. Elder flower fritters are a tasty Southern German treat, for example. Personally, I prefer to wait for the berries.
Berries beginning to form (early June)
Ripe berries (early July)
You’ll want to wait until the berries are this color before picking them. Unripe berries make some people nauseous so be sure to wait until the berries are completely ripe.

Note: The elderberries in these photos are Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea (also called Sambucus mexicana). They are very common in the Western U.S. and are considered to be among the best-tasting elderberries. Other parts of the country (and world) have different species but the culinary and medicinal uses are pretty much the same.


  1. We've got some here, nevermind the berries but the foliage and flowers are lovely. Elderberry water and wine are quite big here :)

  2. Oh, YUM! Are you bringing some up?


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