Elderberry Toxicity and Edibility

red elderberry berries

Ripening red elderberry berry clusters. The juice and fruit is edible, but the seeds are toxic.

Hank Shaw published an article at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook on elderberry fritters. I created this post to share my own discoveries about the Red Elderberry and foster some further discussion in the comments below about the edible and toxic parts of this plant.

I’ve been investigating the edibility of many local, wild plants. The red elderberry is one that has caught my eye recently. Looking in Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, it mentions that the “stems, bark, leaves and roots” are toxic, but does not mention the seeds. I recently took an ethnobotany class hosted by the Anacortes Friends of the Forest, in my town of Anacortes, Washington. Denise, the instructor, told us that about the toxicity of the seeds. However, the berries are traditionally pressed, filtered, and the resulting juice can be used to make tea, juice, or wine. I’m particularly looking forward to trying my hand at making some wine with them in the next couple months.

elderflower flower

Red elderberry flower cluster – photo by Tom Brandt

The red elderberry is a common wild plant here in this part of the woods. The clusters of berries are just starting to ripen and turn bright red. So, I missed the opportunity for the fritters mentioned by Hank. However, after my success with making maple flower fritters, I can’t wait to try fritters with these flowers.

Hank echoed in his article that the stems were toxic. He mentions being carefull to extract the flowers from the stems. When I’m preparing to harvest the flowers next year, I’m going to be carefull to snip the flower heads off of the cluster and not use the entire cluster itself. I’m wondering if I need to take the extra effort to pull the petals off the flowers, or if It’s safe to each the entire flower head.

Do you know where the toxicity of the flower begins and ends? What has been your experience with eating red or blue elderberry flowers and berries? I’d love to hear it! I’m going to be emailing both Hank and Denise to see if I can get them to add their input to this article too.

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6 Responses to “Elderberry Toxicity and Edibility”
  1. HankShaw says:

    I don’t ever work with red elderberry. To me, it doesn’t taste very good, is bitter and is — arguably — toxic. Do your best to try to find blue elderberry instead. THAT is the elderberry most of us work with. I honestly can’t think of a single forager who eats red elderberry on purpose. Sorry!

    • Chris says:

      Roger that. I wish the blue elderberries were more prevalent, but I’ve never come across one in my hikes. The red ones grow like dandelions around here though – big bright bunches of red berries temping me to do something with them.

  2. Rachel M says:

    I recently made a quart of red elderflower tinture, using the whole flower cluster. Would you recommend using this for its cold fighting properties, or should I scrap it?

  3. Chuck says:

    I have made jam out of Pacific Red Elderberry. It is quite good. I used the whole berry, including seeds. It took a couple of hours to pick 8 cups, enough for a batch of jam. I brought the mashed berries to a boil and had to open every window in the house. The boiling fruit created a toxic atmosphere for a few minutes, but it soon disappeared. I believe I added 6 cups of sugar, brought it back to a boil for a couple of minutes and filled half pint jars. It does not require any added pectin. The small flat seeds give a nutty flavor to the jam.

    If I were to make this jam again, I might try to cook it outdoors due to the toxins that boil off from the berries during the first few minutes of cooking.

    Everyone who tried this jam liked it. I would have made it again by this time, if it didn’t take so long to pick and stem those tiny berries.

    • Daryl says:

      Took me no time at all to get 2 shopping bag full. I first broke otf the stem but soon discovered it was a lot quicker to just strip the berries. A little more work cleaning them perhaps but sure a lot faster picking them.

  4. Chuck says:

    I have also mixed leaves from the red elderberry, with red clover flowers and stinging nettles to make an expectorant tea, that works pretty well. Sinuses open up pretty well on about the second day after drinking large quantities of it.

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