Elderberries: How to Harvest, Preserve & Use

Learn how to harvest, store, freeze, and dry elderberries, then how to turn them into healthy syrup, tea, vinegar, oxymel, and more!

woman's hand harvesting ripe elderberries into a wooden bowl

Have a bounty of elderberries and not quite sure what to do with them?

We have lots of ideas for you!

I’m using Black Elderberry (Sambucu nigra) in these photos, since that’s what we have growing around here. Blue elderberries (Sambucus cerulea) can be used in the same way in these recipes.

First, make sure you harvest fully ripe berries.

When to Harvest Elderberries

Black elderberries are ready to harvest when the berries have turned a deep black color; the cluster also start to heavily droop downward.

The berries don’t all ripen at the same time, so you’ll notice some clusters of berries are black, or reddish-purple-black, while other clusters are red, and some are still green.

Don’t harvest or eat the green or red berries! Leave them on the elder bush to continue ripening.

Below is a photo showing elderberries at different stages. You can see the green and red ones aren’t ready to harvest, while the black ones are. There are also a few clusters that have shriveled up and dried on the vine – leave those and don’t use in your remedies, they aren’t at their prime and likely have mold starting to develop.

The trickiest ones are the reddish-purple ones that are *almost* ready; I know some people (including some of my family members who help me pick!) go ahead and pick them along with the black berries, but I personally like to leave those another day or two, until they’re a deeper black color.

elderberries at different stage - green and red, shriveled and old, red-purple, and black
Elderberries at different stages of ripeness.

How Long to Refrigerate Elderberries

The easiest way (and the most short-term way) to store elderberries is by simply popping them in the refrigerator!

Using either whole clusters or the plucked, stemless berries, simply place the unwashed berries in a container, cover the container loosely, and store in the refrigerator.

Try to use your fresh berries within 1 to 2 days – they can mold and/or start fermenting very quickly!

This storage method is useful for if you picked your elderberries one day with, say, the intention of making syrup, but decide that you would rather make the syrup the next day, instead of on the day of picking.

tray of frozen elder berry clusters
Pan of elder berry clusters in the freezer.

Freezing Elderberries

Freezing is a longer-term way to preserve your elderberries!

Taking a cookie sheet pan, cover it with parchment paper. You can either place entire clusters of fruit onto the pan, stems clipped close to the head and placed, stem-side-up, on the parchment paper, or you can go ahead and remove the berries from the stem, spreading them out as a single layer on the parchment.

Pop this in the freezer for several hours or overnight. They will be solid enough to put away.

For elderberries you left the stems on, use this time to de-stem the berries, collecting them in a separate container and discarding the stems. Store the berries in freezer bags or freezer-safe containers. Sealing them with a vacuum sealer will help to prolong their freezer life even further.

Frozen elderberries are generally good 6-10 months, but may be good for as long as a year. This method is a great way to store elderberries (and destem elderberries with minimal fuss!) for making jelly or syrup later in the year, when elderberries are not available.

screens of elderberries being dried
Drying screens, covered with black elderberries.

Drying Elderberries

Dried elderberries are helpful to have on hand year round. Once completely dried, they have a shelf life of around 1 year, or as long as they smell good and aren’t faded.

To dry the berries in a dry climate, you can use screens. (Highly humidity climates may find they mold or ferment too easily this way.)

To dry elderberries on a screen, spread the berries in a single layer over screens, stirring with a clean hand a couple times a day. Depending on your climate and temperature in your house this could take several days to a week.

We’ve found that a dehydrator works great for our humid summers. We use a hand-me-down old Nesco dehydrator set at 125 degrees F, lining the trays with parchment paper so the berries don’t fall through.

You can start checking your berries after about 6 hours in the dehydrator and stir every so often, but ours usually takes overnight, or around 12 to 14 hours to completely dry.

Once completely dry, store in a glass jar out of the light, with a tight-sealing lid.

Tips for Using Elderberries in Recipes & Remedies

Elderberries can be used fresh or dried. There’s some conflicting opinions about using them raw or cooked. Cooking is said to reduce the toxins in the seeds and is what most herbalists seem to prefer, while those in the raw camp believe heat destroys the medicinal benefits.

  • The toxic elements in the seeds become a problem when crushed. If you simmer the whole berries, or infuse the whole raw berries in vinegar or alcohol, and don’t crush the seeds, the mixture is fine to use. Just be sure to strain out the seeds before consuming.
  • Eating a whole berry with an uncrushed seed will likely pass right through you (but still not recommended!) Chewing or pulverizing the berries so the seeds break open, are not good things to do.
  • If a couple small stems are left with the elderberries, it will be okay. Try to get as many as possible, but if you miss one or two, it’s fine. It’s not okay to leave the stems on all or most of the berries.
  • If you’re concerned about getting an upset stomach from raw elderberries, just heat or cook them first for at least ten to twenty minutes. (And don’t forget to strain out the seeds!)
jar of elderberries covered in vinegar on wooden background
Elder Berry Vinegar

1. Elderberry Vinegar

Elderberry vinegar sounds like a strange thing to make, but you can use it to make (among other things) delicious honey-caramel candies! You can also often use it in recipes that normally call for fruit or balsamic vinegar. So why not try making a jar, just to experiment with?

To make elderberry vinegar:

Dried or fresh elderberries are poured to partially fill a glass mason or canning jar (half-way with fresh elderberries, one-fourth way with dried berries), then apple-cider vinegar is used to top it up. Cover with a plastic lid (metal will rust!), let it steep for 1-4 weeks in the refrigerator, and strain; you’ve got a jar of elderberry vinegar!

Elderberry vinegar is good for 3 or 4 months when kept in the refrigerator, or you can process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes for longer shelf life.

jar of elderberry syrup on wooden background with fresh elderberries and honey
Elderberry Syrup

2. Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry syrup might seem scary, but it’s actually an easy, minimal-fuss project that you can make in an afternoon!

Elderberries are destemmed and covered with water, and simmered for a short while, sometimes with a stick of cinnamon or a small slice of ginger. The fruit gets smashed gently around a bit with a fork to release the dark, rich juices, and after gentle heating, it goes through a strainer, the seeds and pulp discarded, and a mess of golden, sweet raw honey gets mixed in with the lot.

Elderberry syrup should be stored in the refrigerator for about a month. Find the full recipe at our other site, The Nerdy Farm Wife.

bottles of elderberry tincture on a wooden pallet
Bottles of elderberry tincture.

3. Elderberry Tincture

Elderberry tincture can be made with dry or fresh berries, so you can make it year-round as you need it! This is a slower project, as it needs 4-6 weeks to infuse, but once it’s made, it’s good for a whole year, or sometimes even longer!

A jar is partially filled with dried or fresh elderberries (1/4 way with dried, 1/2 way with fresh berries), then it’s filled the rest of the way with high proof alcohol. Then the lid is secured, a label gets slapped onto the jar, and the tincture gets hidden away somewhere dark to infuse for about 4 weeks! After that, it’s just a matter of straining out the elderberries, and bottling your new tincture into glass jars or bottles, and storing in a cool, dark location for best shelf life.

A few drops are all that’s used at a time- dropped into your favorite drink, or in a spoonful of honey- so one batch of tincture is probably all you need for the year!

4. Elderberry Tea

Elderberry tea couldn’t be simpler- it’s just dried elderberries, water, and your choice of sweetener, if so desired.

Take 1 to 2 tsp of dried elderberries to every 8 oz of boiling water, and steep for at least 10 minutes before straining, sweetening (if that’s how you drink your tea), and drinking.

5. Elderberry Oxymel

Oxymels are sweet and sour medicinal syrups, made with herb infused apple cider vinegar and honey.

We’re going to make a hot oxymel – which means the elderberries will get heated with vinegar before being combined with honey.

To make elderberry oxymel:

Simmer 1/4 cup dried elderberries and 1/2 cup vinegar in a small saucepan for about ten minutes. Be sure to cover with a lid as it simmers, since vinegar fumes can be quite pungent!

Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm or a temperature that’s easy for you to handle.

Strain and combine the elderberry infused vinegar with an equal amount of honey.

Store in a glass canning jar with a plastic lid (metal lids will rust over time due to the vinegar’s acidity.)

Take by the spoonful as needed for sore throats and minor colds and flu. The shelf life of oxymels is somewhere around 9 months.

6. Elderberry Lip Balm

Here’s a fun project idea – use the dried berries in your lip balm!

This lip balm is also infused with alkanet root and flavored with peppermint essential oil. You can find the full recipe at our other site, The Nerdy Farm Wife.

Bonus Idea: Elder Leaf Salve

The leaves are useful too! We make a salve with the leaves (for bumps & bruises).

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