My friend Ellen is a goddess when it comes to food.
I know that may seem like a strong word to use for a person, but what else can I call someone who has converted her entire city lot to an edible landscape, processed half a hog in her kitchen, makes her own beer and soda syrups, and has an outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven? We first met online, crossing paths because we both wrote blogs about gardening and keeping chickens in our city backyards. When we figured out that we lived only about a mile or two away from each other and that we both liked to knit, too, it seemed that it was inevitable that we become friends. So when Ellen suggested we take a day trip out to southwest Michigan to pick elderberry flowers I thought: why not?
We got an early start yesterday morning, leaving her house at 7:30 AM for what should have been a less than three hour drive. Unfortunately getting through the traffic mess created by an early morning accident that had shut down the busiest section of expressway in the city delayed us nearly an hour. We finally made it to the fruit orchard in South Haven, Michigan run by Ellen’s friend, Pete, by late morning. A short walk around the property brought us to a small stand of elderberry shrubs in flower.
But we could only look at these plants as examples since they were planted by Pete so he could sell their fruit at market. We were supposed to connect up with another person — a neighbor of Pete’s called Fritz — who could guide us to a place where we could forage for elderberry flowers. Finding Fritz took another 30 minutes or so, and he kindly invited us in his house as he called another neighbor who had lots of elderberry shrubs on his property. Unfortunately, the neighbor didn’t want us coming over to pick flowers, so we had to move on to Plan B: picking flowers from the shrubs growing in the ditches alongside the county roads.
Fritz got us started off by showing us a road where a few elderberry shrubs were in bloom and informing us that anything within 30 feet of the road was county property. For the next two hours, we drove up and down county roads (some paved, some not) looking for elderberry shrubs, tramping through tall grass and weeds on sloping ground, and filling paper grocery bags with flower umbels. In total we collected one full shopping bag of umbrels and only had one minor slip and fall incident where Ellen tumbled to within a few inches of a ditch full of stagnant water.
During the course of the day, I learned quite a bit about what Ellen kept referring to as “nature’s pharmacy.” Elderberry flowers and and fruit seem to be quite valuable to many cultures. Here they’re treated like a weed and a pest. Fritz told us that there used to be many more elderberry shrubs in the area, but last year the county chopped many down as they cleaned out the ditches.
After spending a couple hours driving around and looking for them, Ellen and I became pros at spotting elderberry shrubs. All the way home we had our eyes trained on the greenery surrounding the expressways. Every once in a while one of us would exclaim, “There! Look!” or “Oh! That’s a HUGE patch!”
It seems elderberry does quite well alongside the highways. It grows best in full sun so is only found on the edges of forests. It likes moist soil and can be found in marshy conditions. We even spotted a few large patches of it alongside the Kennedy Expressway as we drove north through the city. Now that we know the conditions in which elderberry thrives, we’re plotting how to stealthily cultivate it in the parks and forest preserves of Chicago.
Over the next week or two, there will be more elderberry flowers available for the taking. Then we’ll have to patiently wait until the fall to harvest berries.
I’m sure Ellen will make a delicious cordial or wine with the flowers, but I’m waiting for the berries. Some elderberry syrup seems like just the thing to have on hand during winter cold and flu season. Until then, I’ll keep scouting the neighborhood for the shrubs, biding my time.
Have you ever foraged for anything?