Elderberries are flowering plants that belong to the Adoxaceae family. They are known for producing dark-colored, tangy, and small fruits that grow in clusters.
Like other types of berries, these fruits are rich in vitamins and antioxidants and are believed to treat fever and enhance the immune system.
However, they can also be toxic when not harvested and prepared correctly.
When to harvest elderberries? After planting elderberries in spring, you will start seeing fruits grow around August to September. However, you can only expect a bigger yield in their second or third year. They mature within five to 15 days and will turn a dark purple color when ready to pick.
What To Expect When Growing Elderberries
Elderberry plants are relatively large shrubs that eventually grow to 10 feet or higher.
You might start seeing fruits the first year, but you will get a much bigger harvest two to three years after planting when the plants have established stronger roots.
Given the right growing conditions, your elderberry plants can live up to 60 years.
As they grow, they will produce more canes that become new branches. As such, you will get even more elderberry fruits over the years.
Every year, you can harvest up to 12 to 15 pounds of fruits per plant, so make sure you plan what you want to do with them!
How Do You Know When Your Elderberries Are Ready to Harvest?
Here’s what you need to watch out for to know if your elderberries are ready for harvesting:
Elderberry bushes don’t grow fast, which is why they are often described as plants that sleep, creep, and then leap!
If you are patient enough to wait for them to mature, all your hard work will pay off in two to three years’ time.
Elderberry fruits usually mature between late summer and early autumn or mid-August to mid-September.
While the plants are tough and can tolerate the cold, the fruits should be harvested before the temperatures drop to freezing levels.
That said, not all varieties mature at the same time, so it’s best to check what variety you are growing in your garden.
The most common is Sambucus canadensis, usually called “Adams.” This elderberry variety matures or ripens in August.
The intervals in which different elderberry varieties mature are not that significant. Still, your best bet is to check the fruits out from time to time to make sure.
Like other berries, the best way to tell if your elderberries are ready for harvesting is by looking at their color.
The fruits start out as green and will eventually turn red. Around this time, they are still bitter and toxic, even when cooked.
When you see them turning purple, that’s the time you’ll know you can start picking.
However, we recommend waiting until the fruits turn a dark purple to black color before harvesting them.
There are times when elderberries appear ripe on the outside but actually need more time to ripen, so how can you make sure they are ready for picking?
Another way to tell if your elderberries are fully ripe is by inspecting the fruits’ juice.
To do this, pick one from a cluster and squeeze the juice out. Ripe elderberries that are ready for harvest will have a deep purple-colored juice.
What Happens if You Don’t Harvest Elderberries?
Elderberries are at their best flavor when you harvest them at the right time. It’s also the perfect time to use the extracts to help treat nerve pain, headaches, and infections.
That said, what happens if you leave them in the bush for too long?
Unfortunately, elderberry fruits will become toxic and lose their nutrients if they are not picked on time.
They will lose their flavor.
Elderberries are naturally tangy or bittersweet when freshly harvested and ripe, so they may not be for you if you like extra sweet fruits.
However, you can have a sweeter harvest if you plant and grow Sambucus canadensis.
Even if you grow Adams elderberries, leaving them on the plant for too long is not ideal. They will start losing their distinct sweetness and will turn sour when overripe.
Their texture starts to turn squashy and soft.
Another thing to expect if you don’t harvest elderberries on time is a mushy texture. They will be softer than usual and will not be fun to eat.
Even if this happens, that doesn’t mean your harvest becomes useless. You can turn overripe elderberries into jam or jellies, or you can bake them into pies.
With enough research, you can also use overripe elderberries to make cough drops, gummies, and even wine!
How To Harvest Elderberries?
Usually, you must wait five to 15 days for elderberry clusters to ripen before you can finally pick them.
The good thing about these fruits is that even though they take a long time to grow, it doesn’t mean they are not easy to harvest.
In fact, you will only need to learn a few things to harvest elderberries successfully.
Step 1: Check for ripe elderberry clusters.
The first step to harvesting elderberries is ensuring they are ready for picking.
Again, the best months to harvest them are from August to September, right before autumn ends.
They have a long harvest season but make sure you don’t wait too long because they won’t be able to survive the winter cold.
It’s worth noting that elderberries will not continue to ripen after you harvest them. As such, it’s crucial that you harvest only the mature ones.
Again, if you’re still in doubt, you can grab a single tiny fruit and slightly squish it to check the juice that comes out.
Step 2: Prepare the right tools.
To pick elderberries, you will need a sharp pair of scissors or, better yet, your trusted pruning shears. A basket or two to put your freshly harvested berries in is also important.
Step 3: Start harvesting.
As mentioned, elderberries grow in clusters, so the easiest way to harvest them is to cut the entire bunch of fruits from the branch.
You can then individually remove each fruit attached to the cluster afterward.
Step 4: Put the elderberries you picked in the basket.
After you cut the cluster from the branch, carefully place it in your basket. Make sure you don’t pack them too tightly and use several baskets if necessary.
You will want to pick only the dark purple and black fruits and throw away the green and red ones. Remove any stem or leaf, too, which can be toxic.
Step 5: Continue caring for your elderberry bushes.
Elderberry bushes will survive many years if well taken care of. So, make sure you plan your after-care once you’re done with the year’s harvest.
It’s important to leave the canes on the plant to help it survive cold temperatures. Then, prune older canes come early spring or right before the winter ends.
By doing this, you are encouraging your elderberry plants to regrow younger and healthier canes, which will produce fruits come late summer or early autumn.
Elderberry plants also respond well to regular fertilization every year in early spring.
Adding fertilizer will not only help strengthen the plant’s root system but also encourage fruit production. Use high-nitrogen fertilizer or well-composted manure.
Should You Wash Elderberries After Harvesting?
Like any freshly harvested fruit, it’s a good idea to wash elderberries right after picking if you are going to eat them immediately.
Doing this gets rid of bugs and dirt that might have gotten stuck on the fruit’s surface.
It’s also important to remove the stems and leaves, which contain lectin and cyanide that can cause vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea when ingested.
To wash elderberries thoroughly, you can use a large bowl and a colander or strainer.
Pick each fruit from the cluster and place them in the bowl. Then, put the bowl under an open tap. Rinse them carefully, and then drain the water using a colander.
After washing, you can go ahead and prepare the fruits for cooking or storing.
Can You Eat Elderberries Immediately After Harvesting?
While you won’t need to wait and ripen them off the plant, elderberries need to be cooked before you can eat them.
Eating raw elderberries can cause a buildup of cyanide in your body, leading to negative side effects like vomiting and diarrhea.
So, after washing, what should you do with elderberries?
The easiest and most common way to eat elderberries is by cooking them with sugar to sweeten them up even more.
Others mix elderberries in their summer pudding, pie, or fruit salad to add more flavor and color.
For later consumption, you can also store your freshly harvested elderberries in the fridge or freezer.
When frozen, these fruits can last up to six to 10 months. If you want them to store longer than that, you can also dry elderberries in your dehydrator.
Elderberries have been around for thousands of years, probably because of the fruits’ distinct bittersweet flavor profile and health benefits.
Unlike any fruit, they are believed to have been used in folk medicine to cure headaches and colds as well as strengthen the immune system.
While they can cause digestive issues, knowing how to grow, harvest, and prepare them for eating will allow you to enjoy all of their benefits.
These plants also produce pound after pound of tiny fruits and will continue to do so for up to 60 years.
Because of these reasons, they are a good choice if you’re looking to grow your own edible garden.
You can grow them alongside blueberries and raspberries or together with your herbs like parsley, tarragon, and oregano.