Harvesting the Elderberry

The hardest part of making elderberry wine is picking through the berries to remove the tiny stems. While a few stems won't ruin the batch, they contain a gluey substance which is hard to remove from up your carboys, so they should be held to a minimum. I asked for suggestions on three relevant newsgroups; rec.crafts.winemaking, rec.crafts.meadmaking, and misc.rural. There were a lot of good suggestions, which fell into four basic categories:

  1. Teasing: use a pair of forks to pick the berries off the stems.
  2. Freezing:
  3. Rolling:
  4. Floating: Dump the harvest into water; stems float, berries sink.
I used a combination of the above ideas and cut my processing time to a third of last year's hand picking and sorting procedures. First, I bought a large, wide-toothed comb with a handle, pictured to the right, hanging on an elderberry bush to indicate its size relative to the berries. I used a belt to hang a pail from my neck. Grabbing a berry cluster in my free hand, I combed the berries off the stems into the pail. I soon learned that it's better to make several passes at a cluster than to try to get all the berries in one swipe. If you grab too many berries on the comb, there's too much resistance and a lot more stems snap off higher up than where they join the berry, ending up in the pail. Also, I try not to crush the berries, otherwise some of the juice that I want in my wine will be lost in the washing operation.

I quickly learned that the branches of the elderberry bush are much less flexible than one would expect. Trying to bend a branch down to the pail to harvest some high clusters generally resulted in a loud snap as the branch cracked off.

Although I never notice bugs on the clusters while harvesting, I always end up with a few in the pail. Here in Maryland, elderberry clusters seem to be a favorite hiding place for small, shield-shaped bugs, like the one pictured to the left.

After harvesting, I first "sifted" the harvest through some 1/4 inch hardware cloth. This removed most of the stems, leaves, twigs and bugs that came home in the pail. Then I poured about a quart of berries at a time into a large cake pan. By a combination of tilting the pan and sorting with the comb, I managed to spot most of the debris which made it past the hardware cloth and remove them. I was very careful to remove any bits of leaf which got into my harvest, as the leaves contain toxic substances. The berries then went into a pail of water where they were stirred gently. Unripened berries and small bits of stem floated to the top and were skimmed off with a small strainer. The berries were then put into plastic bags and stored in the freezer.

This year, I used latex gloves while harvesting and cleaning the elderberries. When the berries are crushed, they stain anything they come in contact with a deep purple, including human hands. Too bad the color isn't permanent; Phebe could use them to dye her wool.

There is an extensive amount of folk lore about the elderberry. It has been used as a medicine for ages and has many magical associations. Here are a few websites about the elderberry that you might find interesting: (Not Rainbow Farm Paul, another Paul who's also interested in Elderberries.)

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