Taking Care of the Elders

Taking Care of the Elders

Sambucus nigra

Here I discuss my love of Elder and how we can take care of this richly providing plant.

As September arrives and passes, I love to see the decadent fruit of the Elder tree (Sambucus nigra); heavily laden fruits, dropping off her flexible branches. I considerate it a non-alcoholic equivalent to red wine, such is its depth and richness. As I imagine drinking in this liquor it feels as if I’m doming a thick, warm coat that will protect against all weathers and ills. Ah, such is the medicine of the Elder in autumn.

One wild plant in increasing trend seems to be the Elder, made famous by the cultivated and bottled, Elder flower cordial, it can become a must have by the avid forager. I have always said that foraging is a skill to be shared and enjoyed, not policed, though I do believe that with the increasing interest in foraging comes responsibilities. Shared responsibilities for the plants that we pick.

How to forage elderberries in a sustainable way

It reminds me of the company Forager, who have been supplying wild foods to chefs and restaurants for 15 years (depending when you read this), and stand by their premise that sustainable foraging is at the forefront of their business. Actually, if they weren’t sustainable in their approach, their business would have folded years ago.

Here in Cornwall the presence of the Elder is rather sparse, I often get asked where to find it, and just tell people to keep looking – it isn’t as abundant as other areas of the UK. For this reason we, foragers, need to take extra care. I have a few spots for elderberries, and never use all of them each year, nor do I take all the berries I can find. Actually, I gain a certain satisfaction from picking so little that my foraging goes un-noticed. Ah, the simple pleasures of life.

In my Environmental Policy for my business I outline only ever picking 10-30% of a plant, and only when it is abundant. Actually, when it comes to seeds and berries, I would suggest 10%, and I’m sure you can imagine why. If you pick too many Elder flowers earlier in the year, there will be little or no Elder berries, and if you pick too many Elder berries you are inhibiting the future life cycle of the Elder.

Wonderful black elderberries (sambucus nigra)

Recently, when attempting to gather a few, last Elder berries at the end of the season, I felt saddened by what I saw. Many of the bushes I have previously visited were not completely, but quite thoroughly stripped of berries. These first berries were near footpaths. As I ventured off piste, so to speak, I found more abundance – of course – on Elders that were harder for humans to reach.

We share our natural world with humans, animals, birds and minerals, it is a fine balance, a glorious balance, and one we can take some care and responsibility for. So, with that in mind, once I’d foraged my berries and plucked the majority of them off the stems for cordials and rich treats, I took the remaining berries (each containing a seed) back to the wood. I took them to areas where Elders like to grow, where Elders grow nearby and I dispersed the seeds.

Now, I’m no gardener, and maybe none of those seeds will take, though somehow I trust the ruthlessness of nature and the alchemy of the weather and the soil to make that decision. However, for those of your who are gardeners, please feel free to plant Elders, cultivate, propagate and tend them. Lets take care of the Elders.

Sustainable foraging of elderberries



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