If you want to make elderberry syrup on the cheap and have identified black elderberry shrubs growing wild in your area (or have some in your yard), you can use fresh elderberries for your elderberry syrup as long as you’re cautious.
There are a few safety precautions for making the elderberry syrup with fresh berries that you’ll want to follow if this is your first time using fresh elderberries.
#1 Make sure it’s black elderberry!
When identifying elderberries, look for dark purple-black berries growing in clusters that droop down from deep-purple stems.
Depending on where you live in the U.S., you can see ripe elderberries from May until November.
When in doubt, always consult with someone that’s familiar with black elder before using the berries!
#2 Use only the BERRIES
The elder flower is also commonly used for herbal remedies and is SAFE to use, but for the purpose of making the elderberry syrup, you’ll be using the berries of black elderberry, not the flowers.
The elderberry leaves, twigs and stems contain high concentrations of cyanogenic glycosides which can lead to cyanide poisoning if ingested in large enough amounts.
Keep only the berries. REMOVE all leaves and stems (no matter how small) before you process the elderberries.
#3 Only use DARK PURPLE berries
Discard all green (unripe) berries and ones that are lightly colored. Yup, those darn cyanide compounds again!
Use ripe, deeply colored elderberries only.
#4 RAW is NOT always better!
RAW elderberries (especially their seeds which form about 50% of the berry) ALSO contain cyanide-inducing glycoside that can make you sick if you eat enough of it. (You’d see general weakness, rapid heartbeat, stomach upset, cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and other unpleasant symptoms which can end up with hospitalization in severe cases.)
I’m not aware of the exact amount of RAW elderberries one would have to ingest to induce poisoning, but people have been known to get sick after consuming just a handful of RAW elderberries. (Some varieties are apparently more toxic than others.)
Never consume raw elderberries!
Fortunately, cyanogenic glycosides are destroyed by heat, so as long as you cook your elderberries (which is exactly how the elderberry syrup is made), you’re good!
(Cooking elderberries destroys the glycosides present in the juice as well the seeds which makes the whole berries safe to eat, seeds included. In case you end up with truckloads of black elderberries and start thinking about elderberry jelly or pie…?)
So just remember…
When using fresh elderberries:
- Only the berries;
- Dark purple, nice and ripe;
- Always cook!
Ideally, have someone vet your berries before using them if you’re not quite sure what you got. Be safe!