I’d been watching a patch by the Silver Lake dam but hadn’t picked any yet, waiting for that deep purple color to show, but wanting not to wait too long, until birds and other gatherers got to them. And then I saw numerous ripe-looking elderberries on Labor Day while biking to the river with my friend Sue Schreurs.

Sue is the healthiest 75-year-old I know, with this trip her eighth this summer to her river cabin almost 50 miles away. I was pleased to make the 40-mile ride to my cabin without major problems, although a bit embarrassed as I wasn’t feeling energetic enough to kayak with Sue after the ride, even though she was.

It had been a perfect day for the ride, very little wind, not too much sun, and light traffic on the roads. Picking elderberries at 10 mph on the bike trail between Elgin and Plainview would give me my first taste of these tiny fruits for this year. And later, going out on the river for a sandbar dinner with my friend Elise, and friends of Sue and her husband, Kevin, topped off a memorable Labor Day.

Elderberry are little-known small fruits found on a shrub (or tree, if you prefer) that grows throughout a wide range of hardiness zones. Plants can be identified in mid-summer along bike trails and roadways when they produce soccer ball-sized flower heads with hundreds of small white flowers that later will turn into the purplish berries.

I’ve only seen them in the wild, but suspect some folks have perhaps bought cultivars for their yards. Sites I’ve visited online mention quarter-inch berries, but those I’ve seen or collected are only slightly bigger than an eighth inch in diameter, so perhaps the quarter-inchers are nursery varieties.

Although not consumed by a large percentage of people who may live close to them, elderberries are touted for a wide range of health benefits. They contain a variety of beneficial minerals and vitamins, as well as fiber.

Although more research is undoubtedly needed, some studies also support long-held beliefs they have antioxidant and antiviral effects. These possibly help the immune system to fight off colds, flu and other respiratory conditions, practices which can be traced back to Europeans and Native Americans. And, it has even been suggested, with some scientific trials, that an elderberry face-wash can smooth skin and fight acne.

I should state here that some folks believe eating a lot of raw elderberries may cause vomiting and diarrhea, something eating a lot of many kinds of fruits could also do. However, I haven’t found that to be a problem, and have never cooked the elderberries like many users do to help avoid those problems. It does seem to be more widely believed that cooking the leaves or stems with the fruits is not recommended, as problems some have had when doing so have been more severe.

So, the day after returning from the bike trip, I picked some of the berry clusters on the plants near the Silver Lake dam. They were ripe, with some of the 200 to 300 berries that grew on each flower head visibly absent, I presume from smart birds. But I got enough to take home, rinse off, and carefully "feather" the tiny fruits off their stems into a bowl. I probably had about a cup's worth, some of which I used on top of my oatmeal. Along with the peaches and bananas I added, it was a very tasty and healthy breakfast, with no after-effects.

For those interested in trying elderberries, I am not sure if any will still be present when this column goes to press, so you may need to note it on your calendar for next year. If you do harvest some, you’ll have to make your own decision as to whether to eat them raw or cook them first. And, as usual, I would certainly welcome hearing from any readers who have had their own elderberry collecting and eating experiences.

Greg Munson is a volunteer naturalist and freelance writer. If you have questions, comments or column ideas, contact Munson at naturenutgm@gmail.com.

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