The summer has begun to end its course. The days have gotten shorter, the colors have become dimmer, but the wild medicine is still so plentiful.
I must admit that the end of summer holds a rejuvenating quality. Something I can't quite explain other than a beginning of quietness. As I wrote in my previous blog, the buzzy and busy energy of the beginnings of summer tend to ware on me, yet I also look toward all that I will to accomplish. An interesting mental dichotomy. A few particular accomplishments have been events, markets, and classes I was so lucky to direct my energy toward. That on top of having heaps of personal time to test my limits in the wilderness. Lots of fun hikes and camping trips have filled my soul with gratitude.
Now onto the heart of this post: the Elder tree. Elder or Sambucus Nigra is a perennial shrub that grows along hedges, roadsides, and if you're lucky along the edge of the woods in your own backyard. Elder likes water and thrives in sun to part shade. The leaves are pinnate, narrow, serrated and opposing one another along the stem. Pay close attention to that last sentence, as the leaf growth pattern is a defining feature for this plant. The flower forms an umbel with bronchial-like (ahem, doctrine of signatures) petioles. The plant flowers in Northern New England around mid-June to early July (depending on location). In mid- August the berries begin to ripen and it becomes prime time for foraging these berries.
The first step is to always consider your location when foraging. Some questions you may want to ask yourself are "What is the energy this plant exudes?", "Am I foraging off a busy road side where this plant is being exposed to constant exhaust pollutants?", "Is this soil healthy?","Are there animals nearby that rely heavily on the plant I am foraging?" These are important considerations before jumping head first into the process. I also remind people to take a moment to clear your mind, become present, and listen to the land, and the plant. It is important to ask permission either energetically or via asking yourself the above questions.
Never Take More Than You Need
Another important aspect in becoming a mindful and aware forager is to never take more than you need OR only take up to 1/3 of the population of that plant(s). We want to leave an ample community of that plant left for its revival as well as for the sustainability of the community in which it is coming from. For the instance of my foraging experience, I took far less than I intended due to the environmental conditions affecting the harvest at the time. However the benefit is that I left plenty for the wildlife to feed off of!
Gently rubbing the berries off the umbels
When foraging the elderberries, I find that two methods work best. These methods are gently rubbing the berries into your harvesting basket/receptacle or snipping right below the petioles. Snipping the petioles is often times the fastest way of foraging these berries as it swiftly allows you to forage from a shrub in about 5 minutes time. After you gathered your harvest, make sure to honor that plant. Give a short mindful thanks to that plant and all its offerings.
Processing Your Berries for Storage
Now I am not going to get into the actual manipulation of the berry in this post (save that for later, stay tuned!). I am, however, going to communicate the relaxing nature of processing the berries for storage before use. When you're ready to store your berries, find a spot outside to ground into. Maybe take your shoes off and connect to the Earth just a little more.
Foraged Elderberries and umbels
The next step in this process is to gently work your fingers around the elder umbels to release the berries. Keep the umbel petioles to the side as the berries fall off the stems.
Processing elderberries for storage
Gently rubbing berries off petioles in my backyard
Berries after they're removed from the umbels
Once your berries have been removed from the stems you may wash them. I put the berries in a metal mesh strainer and gently rinse them in the sink.
Use a pot beneath the strainer to collect residual water
The last step is to store the elderberries. I do not own a dehydrator so I decided to freeze them. To freeze, use a plastic bag and lay them out as flat as possible until completely frozen. Once frozen they are less likely to burst open and create a mess. When ready for use, thaw with care and prepare as you would fresh elderberries for syrup, jam, or preserve making. The elderberries must be dried if you want to utilize them for tea. The elderberries can also be tinctured fresh in grain alcohol. I personally prefer the syrup. It is an absolutely delicious way to enhance your immune system when the body is weakened by a viral infection.
Energetically, elderberry is cooling and drying. It is known to strengthen the cytokine cascade and prevent viruses from entering our cells. It has an affinity for the immune system and lungs. It calms and cools aggravated lungs, works as an expectorant and soothes the bronchial tissue. I always suggest 2 tablespoons of elderberry for acute conditions such as colds, flus, and respiratory ailments. For prevention, I suggest 1 tablespoon for up to two weeks after exposure to an ill person.
I hope this reading has inspired you to become comfortable getting out there and wildcrafting with late summer wild herbs. I know I feel more belonging to the land, my bioregional community of botanical beings, and myself through taking the time to work with the plants. Let me know in the comments about your experiences with elder! Have you foraged from this shrub before? Worked with other parts of the plant (i.e - it's flowers)? I look forward to reading your anecdotes and thank you very much for reading mine.
* DISCLAIMER: This blog post does not contain medical/health advice. This information is provided for general informational and educational purposes only.
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