By Alison Steele
American Black Elderberry is hands down my favorite plant growing in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It wasn’t enough for me to tag and forage these native berries. I had to cultivate them in the back corners of the garden lining our chicken fence. Turns out, it couldn’t have been a more perfect place to put down some roots. In one season I had a crop that turned into wine, jam, jelly, tea, and natural dye. Drooping with berries ripening to pitch black, I sit and marvel at the gigantic clusters. For now, I’d have to leave my groves in the mountains to another forager. This year all my elder magic would come from the mountain garden. And mountain magic it is, loving this climate, thriving with little water, and ripening when we need its medicine the most.
American Black Elderberry Native berries flourish in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Upon returning to California from summer in Virginia, I quarantined for two weeks in the little Logger’s Cabin out back. With no energy to harvest or tame the garden that for two summer months ran wild, I laid in the sleeping loft imagining what our first ripe heirloom tomato might taste like. What a cruel virus to take away one’s taste buds!
Once the fever and body aches subsided, I spent evenings sitting under the elders making sure the birds that now enjoyed breakfast in the tops of my spent sunflowers didn’t raid the elderberries at dinnertime. In hindsight, I’m glad I allotted such a large plot to the sunflowers as they’re exceptional diversions from the priceless berries that seem to be hiding from all the small critters that would gobble them up. In a few more days I would have enough energy to process these jewels, but for now freshly steeped elderberry juice in chamomile tea would help steer me in the right direction. After another week, I headed out to harvest the medicine that would keep my family strong through winter.
I clip the clusters that are swollen with juice and as black as coal, devour the ones dried by the sun, and tuck away the others that will keep for another few days on the bush. I fill the sink with cool water and gently rinse off the dry and dusty earth that blankets them. Adding just enough water to coax the juice, I begin syrup making. The berries aren’t particularly flavorful so I add whatever fruit is falling first. This year it’s the Rio Oso Gem peaches. Ginger pairs well with peach, reduces pain and stomach ache, along with its immune building strength like the elderberry. I always make a version with fresh ginger root. Cinnamon bark rounds out the flavors and offers antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Lemon Balm is my go-to for calming the nerves, reducing anxiety, and easing pain, so in it goes. California poppy deserves a place in the pot as well with its ability to reduce pain, promote relaxation, and enhance sleep. With all these garden plants comes powerful mountain medicine and it couldn’t be more timely.
Peach Elderberry Syrup with California Poppy
6 cups elderberries, destemmed
3 to 4 large peaches, roughly chopped
2 cinnamon sticks
2 inch knob of fresh ginger root, grated
2 cups water
1 c dried whole leaf lemon balm
1 c dried California poppy, whole petal, stem, leaf, root
1 c local raw honey
1 pack 4 oz freezer jars
Variations: Pears instead of peaches and rose petals instead of ginger
Place berries, fresh peaches, and cinnamon bark into a large stockpot along with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a medium simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Gently mash berries and peaches with a kraut pounder or large wooden spoon. Reduce to a low simmer, then add fresh ginger root, flowers, and herbs. Cook for another 5 minutes. Turn off and let cool down a bit. Strain berries through a loose-weave linen dish towel, or butter muslin laid over a sieve and a bowl squeezing out every last drop of juice. Stir in the local raw honey. Pour syrup into a pitcher, fill the small wide mouth jars to the freezer line, screw lids on and store in the freezer until needed. You can also use ice cube trays and transfer them to a freezer bag. I pour any leftover syrup into a bottle, store it in the fridge, and use it straight away in fresh orange juice freeze pops. If you know how to water-bath can and are thinking about winter power outages, process the jars for 10 minutes and store them on the pantry shelf. If you’re a seasoned jelly maker, then try adding half the amount of pectin needed to make jelly to the honey BEFORE stirring it in, and boil for 2 minutes for a thick elderberry syrup (that hasn’t been cooked to death) and that can also be drizzled over griddle cakes for a magical power packed breakfast. Use either version in tea when your immune system needs a little extra tending!
Photos by Alison Steele