Novelist | Singer
(Written in August, 2018)
Today was annual elderberry picking day, so I took a day off expressly for this purpose. Why so immediate a need? Because the berries are ripe, and I have to beat the birds to a delectable food source. The dental assistant said, “What? Elderberries?” when I offered my post dental appointment plans. “I think I’ve heard of ‘em. But can you just pick them?”
“Yes you can.” Not many people these days have the Euell Gibbons’ gene.
So I proceeded to Stony Cove, which many Cape Ann islanders probably don’t know by name. I didn’t either. It’s that little pull-off across from Sudby’s on the last stretch of north bound 128 coming into Gloucester. I had never been there, though I’d flown past it hundreds of times. Over 50 acres of Greenbelt property jut out from the highway causeway, complete with trails and a trail map.
I scoped out the elderberries in May when they produced plate-sized umbels of blossoms like gigantic Queen Ann’s Lace, which most people know. The bushes themselves are few and far between. They can grow to almost ten feet in height with the girth of a small room. They prefer disturbed areas, roadsides, empty lots. They live in a raggedy-looking world, but are packed with the medicinal qualities unequalled in any lab. And they are wild, like me. As far back as I can remember, I have been gathering wild food to eat. I have decided that it is the best food available. It’s free to boot. And elderberries are among the royalty of wild food. The May bloom lasts about a week or two, not more, and the bushes stand out like beacons in the mostly green roadside environment where they flourish. Although I have a few preferred bushes, I scope out new ones every year. It’s a little game I play with myself.
Once I park, I climb out of my Betelgeuse cabriolet with a bag and scissors and start for the highway. Thankfully a narrow path cuts in back of the guard rail. I do believe it’s illegal to walk right along the interstate. The cars roar by, and I’m sure the drivers are either pitying me my beleaguered existence, forced to walk along 128, or they think I’m nuts and do this just for thrills.
The bush is about 100 yards down just at the foot of the “Rust Island” highway sign. I see I have come a little too early. Some of the elderberries are still that trademark red color which says “keep away.” Oddly, unripe berries are toxic, while the ripe berries are some of the most nutritious on earth. They are also nature’s big secret. No one seems to know what or where they are.
The tiny little berries are extremely labor intensive. So my solution is to snip the main stem and take the whole umbel, then later when I have time, I’ll strip the berries from the stems. The berries freeze nicely as well, making them easier to strip. And less messy. Elderberries stain like a mother. My hands stay purple for days. I pick only what is ripe and leave the rest for the birds. Always leave some for the birds. They have a long trip to make. I’m checking constantly for poison ivy, which loves the same eco niche as elderberry.
I return to the car for my second trip to the dentist’s office to show the assistants my treasures, and in doing so, spot yet another bush next to the parking lot near Grant circle. I pull in quickly and park under an apple-laden tree. I’ll be back for those later. The bush is not as ripe as the one on the highway, and I will come back if necessary, but then suddenly I spot the ultimate prize. Not too far from my newly discovered elderberry bush, I see thousands of choke cherries. Four or five small trees not too much taller than me have branches sagging with the brilliant red fruit that is amazingly untouched. These cherries are bigger than the elderberries, and easy to strip from the tree. I gather a couple of quarts, leaving at least half for the birds, plans of sauces and jellies percolating through my thoughts during this most cathartic activity.
I proudly dump examples of my booty on the dentist’s counter and tell the ladies where to find the fruit. Will they? Probably not. We as a culture have lost our gathering instincts. Now it’s considered ucky. I wonder where they think their food comes from. Generally a much uckier place than the side of Rt. 128.
So why go to all this trouble; scoping out a bloom months in advance, watching day after day when the berries are ripening to determine the best possible picking time, often slogging through wet or poison ivy covered turf just to pick the smallest berries in nature, which then take ultra-patience to process into an edible product? Because the health benefits are astonishing: improvement of colds, the flu, sinus issues, nerve pain, inflammation, chronic fatigue, allergies, constipation and cancer. If elderberry is consumed with 48 hours of the onset of a cold, it shortens the duration of symptoms by an average of 4 days. Elderberries are also packed with antioxidants that make an excellent immune booster. I have a friend who makes cough syrup from them, and we spend the ripening period texting back and forth on locations and readiness.
I don’t bother with the cough syrup, but what I do make is sauce. Tough getting elderberry to jell. One year a while back I tried to make elderberry jelly, and ended up with sauce. At first I was disappointed, but then realized what a versatile product it was. The applications are endless: on meat, vegetables, pancakes or waffles, ice cream, in drinks, on toast, stirred in yogurt. The list goes on and on.
So this year was a berry good success. I beat the birds and found another source of fruit in the process. Very soon it’s onto beach plums; I’ve scoped them out at Salisbury Beach.