Elderflower / Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

With its scented umbels of frothy white flowers during one season, then laden with dark purple berries the next, The European Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) is an introduced perennial shrub that is listed as a Category 1b invasive species in South Africa. It is a problem around natural waterways and rivers, where it has the tendency to choke surrounding vegetation. The shrub is most prevalent in KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern and Western Cape. The leaves are toxic to humans and livestock (although a medicinal extract can be prepared from them), but from a foraging standpoint, both elderflower and elderberry are useful items to gather. The small cream-coloured, flat-topped clusters of flowers give off a summery scent that’s floral with notes of honey, cream and slight anise. Not all blooms may smell as pleasant; some may give off a slightly unpleasant musty or damp odour. This occurs especially later in the flowering season after the summer peak – the season to collect elderflower is traditionally during spring and early summer when the blooms are fresh. Elderflower “champagne” is a refreshing fizzy drink that’s perfect for summer. It is a simple recipe involving the natural yeasts of the flowers and feeding them sugar in order to produce alcohol. However, due to gas accumulation from this process, caution should be advised not to prepare elderflower champagne in glass bottles. The bottles need to be “burped” frequently.

A European plant with much lore, it is believed that a few umbels placed beneath a pillow can help those who have difficulty sleeping. Worn as a charm, an umbel can ward off attackers of every kind, and hung over door ways and windows, it was fabled to it keep evil away from the house.

Fresh Elderflower in bloom. © Justin Williams

Once the summer solstice has passed and the sun is setting a bit noticeably earlier, the elderberries should be getting ripe and ready. This is the next stage of growth that follows flowering. Clustered upon reddish stems, the berries of S. nigra are mildly poisonous when raw, but the toxin is easily removed through cooking and thus the berries are rendered edible. Naturally aromatic and slightly tart in flavour, elderberry pairs well with other dark berries like blackberry or black cherry. The are medicinal and used to make extracts for their immune-boosting and anti-viral properties.

This website takes a sustainable approach to foraging and doesn’t focus on protected or indigenous plants or fungi. Like the other invasive plants on this website, this is a species that should not be cultivated or propagated in South Africa. It’s often illegal to buy, sell or trade in exotic plants.

Learn how to forage with this South African foraging guide, or find out which South African books cover foraging

Other wild edible plants to forage in South Africa