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Picking Ripe Elderberries


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#1 WVMountaineerJack

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 03:18 AM

With all the interest lately in elderberries I thought I would share a few of our experiences over the last couple of years. We bought 1 elderberry bush and it flowered and didnt produce any berries, the Hippie farmer who sold it to us forgot to mention that it needed a companion for pollination. We then bought a companion and the next year got our first modest harvest of about 9 lbs of fruit which we picked off by hand and we made 5 gallons of wine which tasted good but needed a little more body. We then expanded the number of bushes and started to get a lot more fruit.

We experimented with picking the berries off with an afro comb but still got a lot of fine stems which we really wanted to reduce the amount of and just have berries. Too many stems and you get the greenish nonpolar goo which is easy to clean with vegetable oil and then soap and water (thanks Jack Keller). Our opinion is that having too much green goo from too many stems and underripe berries in the must lowers the quality of the wine.

On this board we learned you can freeze the fruit and knock the berries off in a bag. You can then sort them first through a wire mesh (thanks Jack Keller) to get rid of the bigger stems. Then another nut designed a table to sort them on using OSB sorting table (thanks Cellardweller) to sort out the smaller stems. So we froze and meshed and sorted, adding a jigsaw to the table to get the berries to bounce a little more down the table. A few problems for us using these techniques are that the frozen berries thaw quickly so we cant use the sorting table when its warm which limits our elderberry sorting to cold days and we still get a lot of the smaller fine stems and we have to then also make sure to sort out green and red unripe elderberries and frozen bugs, especially the stink bugs. This does work if you have a large volume of berries you want to pick but cant match handpicking for quality.

And now hand picking, our favorite method for the highest quality harvesting. One advantage to hand picking the berries off of the stems is that the ripe berries come off easily while the unripe green and reddish berries that havent fully ripened are harder to pull away from the stems. So its easy to sort out the green and under ripe reddish berries while picking off the soft ripe black ones. NO, YOU DO NOT PICK EACH BERRY WITH YOUR THUMB AND FOREFINGER. Instead, we take a section of the whole flower head and gently roll with our thumb against our fingers from the center to the end of each section. We are stripping multiple berries off at a time, not each one individually. This goes pretty fast watching TV in a nice comfy chair. And since the ripe ones come off easily you just dont try to roll them with your thumb hard, a really ripe flower head comes clean almost effortlessly while one with a few unripe berries takes a little more work and clues you into maybe you can leave them on the bush for a few more days.

So how do you tell if the berries are ripe before you pick them? Thats not an easy question as lots of people have different opinions on when elderberries are ripe and of course there are differences in wild vs cultivated, there are different species, there are different growing conditions, drought and rain affect the crop also. We are picking canandensis and nigra varieties in a wineyard that has drip irrigation. The birds also like our berries, if the birds haven't been in the bushes we know the berries are not ripening yet. Once they turn from green to reddish to then deep purple black we squish a few berries, the juice must be intensely red and the berry soft before it can be considered ripe. One problem with elderberries is that not all the berries on the same flower head ripen at exactly the same time so that you can have fully ripe berries and a few reddish berries and even an odd green one in the center. It has also been mentioned here that elderberries get a blush on them when they are ripe, this is really easy to see on some from out west but we rarely see a blush on more than a few berries in the whole wineyard. I wonder if this is a species difference or a geographical difference? Our elderberries go from ripe to raisins or they just fall off with no dusting stage in between. After the berries are picked with put them in freezer bags and freeze them until we are ready to make wine.

We stared off with one bush, got two, then rooted about 20 new plants from these and then bought several different varieties to compare which ones are best. They are incredibly easy to grow, just make sure the get some water especially when its hot. Each year we plan on making a batch of wine from each different cultivar by itself but have been too busy picking bucket loads of berries to worry about separating them so last year we played with boiling the fruit, steaming them or drying them to see what technique makes the best wine but as picking season has rolled around again we havent even had time to taste last years batches before this years is going in the freezer so stay tuned.

Crackedcork

#2 Briankos

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 03:59 AM

Great update and info Crackedcork! Thank you so much. At this point I still have not been able to locate any wild elders, but I have plenty of info on how to identify and where to look, so if in a few weeks I cannot come across any, I too will probably be planting some... When you get to tasting, would you mind letting us know which plant did the best wine?

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#3 Northern Winos

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 06:29 AM

Thanks Crackedcork....I always look forward to your Posts on Elderberries as well as Luc's from the Netherlands.

I started with a pair of cultivated plants and lost the mate a few years ago....Finally figured out why I wasn't getting any fruit from my lone plant......after a couple years I started buying a pair a year of York and Adam's. They die to the ground every year in our NW Minnesota climate...they do grow a beautiful plant and this year bloomed and set some fruit, but are so late.

This year got some plants from the County SWCD [Soil and Water Conservation District' they are probably Sambucus canadensis (American Elderberry) I am hoping they will be more hardy, but probably not as productive...time will tell.

I am really interested in the early variety you are picking already...do you recall the name of that variety??? I would like to research and see how hardy it is.

I first saw Elderberries growing nearby in a ladies yard and had to ask what that beautiful plant was...she has a hedge of them and says she gets fruit...so I do have hopes of someday having enough elderberries to make some wine.

Thanks for sharing your information here and on your Web page [which I check out often]

#4 WVMountaineerJack

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 07:45 AM

Our earliest variate was actually Sampo, a european nigra cultivar we bought from Hartmanns nursery, very large berries but they do not like our heat and something wipes out the leaves in august every year but they keep coming back strong, then the Johns and Novas start producing and they both have large berries, the the Adams produce and then finally the Yorks which are our main crop. The Yorks make millions of little berries, they outproduce the others in mass but picking those millions of little berries takes patience. Elderberries are not something we go down a eat a big hanfull of so doing a taste test is difficult. We did make jam from the early big berried cultivars and its delicious! The seeds give it an extra crunch.

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#5 TwinMaples

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 08:44 AM

Thanks for the elderberry tutorial. I wish I had read it a few weeks ago before I harvested! I picked the heads, double-bagged them, and put them in the freezer. I'll de-stem them this weekend.

Last July (yes, it was hot), I planted 6 elderberry cuttings (Johns and Adams), 6-8 inches tall. Four survived, and after just one season, I havested approximately 1/3 to 1/2 a gallon of berries. Not a lot, but I'm happy, considering when I planted them, and it's just been a year. The tall one is 6 to 7 foot tall, the others 3-4 feet tall.

CrackedCork, can you tell us about you go about rooting more plants? Are you pruning branches, putting them in water to "root", or are you removing new stalks (growth) and replanting? I very much would like to hear your take on this.

Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

Jim

#6 WVMountaineerJack

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 11:38 AM

Elderberries are very easy to start from cuttings. In the past I have taken cuttings in early March as we are getting ready to start our tomatoes and peppers inside. I try to cut them about pencil thick and have 3 nodes, I dip them in hormone powder and put 2 nodes, stripped of any leaves, in a tall 4 inch pot, we got ours from a greenhouse supply store online that also sells the bases to keep them organized. We then put a plastic dome over the top and kept them moist and under fluorescent lights like you grow tomatoes with until they started to send out shoots. After the shoots have a few leaves we then start to prop the dome up to let a little air get in and to eventually get the plants hardened off to not having the dome. We take off the dome, keep them under the lights and start hardening them off, eventually taking them outdoors under a big apple tree to keep them in the shade and then plant them out. The other way is to dig up volunteers that come up from around the base of the plant, that works very well too.

The best way in my opinion is to just buy some 1 or 2 year old stock from the companies I have listed in my webpage, its much less hassle and unless you have a really prized plant or are planning on creating a new cultivar its a lot faster. We also cut off all flowerheads the first year they are planted regardless of whether we started them from cutting or planted bare root stock to give the bushes time to get some roots. We also drip irrigate our berries, I am sure this really helps them out in keeping the berries as big as possible and making the plants huge and healthy all summer.

I fertilized my bushes with 10-10-10 but I might have put too much on because they grew so big they fell over in a thunderstorm and sometimes the flower heads are so big it just bends the bush right over so sometimes they might need a little support if you can figure out a way to keep them off of the ground. One thing we did was to make a big loop with used irrigation hose and wrap it around teh whole bush, seems to help them stand a little better.

Crackedcork

QUOTE (TwinMaples @ Aug 23 2008, 11:16 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Thanks for the elderberry tutorial. I wish I had read it a few weeks ago before I harvested! I picked the heads, double-bagged them, and put them in the freezer. I'll de-stem them this weekend.

Last July (yes, it was hot), I planted 6 elderberry cuttings (Johns and Adams), 6-8 inches tall. Four survived, and after just one season, I havested approximately 1/3 to 1/2 a gallon of berries. Not a lot, but I'm happy, considering when I planted them, and it's just been a year. The tall one is 6 to 7 foot tall, the others 3-4 feet tall.

CrackedCork, can you tell us about you go about rooting more plants? Are you pruning branches, putting them in water to "root", or are you removing new stalks (growth) and replanting? I very much would like to hear your take on this.

Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

Jim


#7 SandSquid

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 11:53 AM

I found a lazy-mans way of "harvesting" is to place a paper grocery bag (aka:"a sack" in the South) over the cluster (stil attached to the tree) and then shake the cluster side to side vigorously and slapping it against the side of the bag. The ripe berries fall off and the unripe berries stay attached.

The downside is the ripest berries get "damaged" ands start to soak and stain the bag. I will try using a large size (gallon or bigger) zip-lock plastic freezer bag the next time.
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#8 WVMountaineerJack

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 01:03 PM

Sandy, why not just use a 3 gallon bucket and whack them on the sides of the bucket like a drunken uncooperative neerdowell? Crackedcork

QUOTE (SandSquid @ Aug 23 2008, 02:25 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I found a lazy-mans way of "harvesting" is to place a paper grocery bag (aka:"a sack" in the South) over the cluster (stil attached to the tree) and then shake the cluster side to side vigorously and slapping it against the side of the bag. The ripe berries fall off and the unripe berries stay attached.

The downside is the ripest berries get "damaged" ands start to soak and stain the bag. I will try using a large size (gallon or bigger) zip-lock plastic freezer bag the next time.


#9 SandSquid

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 01:20 PM

QUOTE (CrackedCork @ Aug 23 2008, 02:35 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Sandy, why not just use a 3 gallon bucket and whack them on the sides of the bucket like a drunken uncooperative neerdowell? Crackedcork


I can easily carry a grocery bag on my bicycle, a 3 gallon bucket is a bit harder to strap to the rack.
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#10 Northern Winos

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 02:40 PM

QUOTE (SandSquid @ Aug 23 2008, 02:52 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I can easily carry a grocery bag on my bicycle, a 3 gallon bucket is a bit harder to strap to the rack.



This is cool...everyone roaming the neighborhoods gathering fruits and berries to make our delicious wines....

Are we having fun or what???? smile.gif

#11 WVMountaineerJack

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Posted 23 August 2008 - 05:12 PM

Hey Squid, you are just going to have to manup buddy and put a sissy bar on your bike and bungee a big old bucket on it to cruise the berry patches with smile.gif Crackedcork

QUOTE (SandSquid @ Aug 23 2008, 03:52 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I can easily carry a grocery bag on my bicycle, a 3 gallon bucket is a bit harder to strap to the rack.


#12 roysha

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Posted 24 August 2008 - 03:27 AM

CrackedCork commented on the blush, (I call it "when they turn white") some EBs develop when ripe. This is the main kind of EB that we have. We live in northern CO just a few miles south of Cheyenne WY and it is very dry here normally, although this year has been quite nice in some ways and an SOB in others.
The EB that we mainly harvest is the Blue EB, aka Mexican EB, aka Sambucus Cerulea, I think. sad.gif
Now here is where I get confused; There is also what is called the American EB or Common EB aka Sambucus Glauca, which looks identical to the S. Cerulea, so I don't know if this is a distinct variety or just variation of the S. Cerulea (like the differences between Adams and York, for example) or vice-versa. Then if you go to the USDA, NRCS website, it shows them with the regional or local names of, Common EB, American EB, Mexican EB, plus a bunch of lesser, and probably more localized names, but under the title of S. Nigra and S. Canadensis. HUH???
Anyway, the "Blue EB" (S. Cerulea) is what we have and it seems to stand the climate here best. They are very prolific producers once established (although rather difficult to propagate compared to the S. Nigra type) and seem to withstand the crap weather much better than the others.
Our 8 plants of Adams and York got hit with a very late spring freeze. After recovering from that and really getting going good, they got hammered with hail and literally had to start over. The way things were going I thought we might get 10-15 lbs of berries this year, the plants are in their 3rd year of growth so we have harvested very few berries from them, when they got thrashed about 10 days ago with another hail storm. We'll be lucky to get a cup or two from all 8 plants. However, the Blue EBs remained pretty much unaffected and so far have yielded approximately 50 pounds with lots and lots of berries in various stages of ripeness. Last year we harvested over 300 lbs from the 3 plants, about a third of which I dried and the rest I cold pressed to make a pure EB juice wine.
Well, I guess this rambling is more or less an attempt to say that the "Blue EB" is the one that develops the blush and it is a separate strain or whatever you want to call it, from the S. Nigra and/or S. Canadensis.

#13 Iowa Guy

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Posted 24 August 2008 - 08:01 AM

Roy - I would be interested to hear more about your pure elderberry juice wine once it has aged a bit. I use 4 pounds elderberries per gallon and that is about all the tannin I can handle... How many pounds per gallon does it take to use the pure juice?

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#14 WVMountaineerJack

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Posted 24 August 2008 - 08:01 AM

Hi Roysha, did you get your blue elders from a nursery? I would really like to know how your 100% pressed juice turned out as we were thinking about doing a 33% this year and a 100% next year, though maybe we have different species of elderberries. Crackedcork

#15 Steve in KC

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Posted 24 August 2008 - 03:10 PM

I picked another 5 gallon bucket full today and this is what I've observed over the past few weeks as I pick.

The larger, juicier berries and clusters that are 100% all purple usually have these characteristics:
the berries burst with the slightest squeeze.
the WHOLE flowerhead is drooped over, like a sunflower because of the weight of the berries.
Flowerheads that are underripe typically are still facing skyward.
The stems that connect the flowerhead to the main part of the woody branch are typically purple as well.

Now..again...this is my first year for picking elderberries and I've yet to start a batch of wine with them, however, I've got enough for a 6 gallon batch that I will start in a few weeks after I decide if I'm getting more grapes or not.
Planned for this year: 6gal Elderberry, 3gal JK's heavy bodied blackberry, 6 gal Persimmon, 6gal Apple, 6gal Niagra, 6gal White Merlot/Straw Island Mist kit

In Primary -3 gal of JK's heavy bodied Blackberry
In Secondary - nada
Undergoing MLF - 5 gal of Baco Noir (8/27/08)
Bulk Aging - 4 gal Concord (from grapes) and elderberry
Bottled- 1 gal Pear/Cinnamon Mead - crap, 1 gal Blueberry Melomel - ok, 4 gal JAO Mead - ok, 6 gal WE Mango Cit. Sym - very good, 1 gal Concord - crap, 6 gal WE Luna Rossa - fantastico!, 1 gal Black and Blue Mead, 1 gal JK's Heavy Bodied Blackberry - to die for (only 1 bottle left! sniff sniff), 3 Gal WE Selection Port - will be good in another 6 months, 2 gal Niagra / Apple blend - wunderbar!




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