This is the time of year when small, tart berries ripen on the elderberry shrubs in the Tehachapi Mountains. These whitish blue berries yield juice that's about as puckery as lemon juice, but when you add sugar or honey, the taste is bright, distinctive and delicious.

Blue Elderberry shrubs (Sambucus mexicana) are found throughout the area, generally in riparian corridors where there is more water available, but once the shrubs get well-established, they can often thrive for years even if there is no obvious nearby water source.

Thanks in part to our wet winter, this has been a bumper year for elderberries, and many bushes are dripping with heavy clusters of the tiny berries, which are about the size of a caper. I have been gathering elderberries in recent weeks with fellow members of the Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center. We collect those in reach and leave many behind for the birds and other wildlife that enjoy elderberries.

In addition to gathering berries to eat, the Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian people of the Tehachapi Mountains used to make a tea with the flat-topped, cream-colored elderberry blossoms to relieve migraines or other headaches. Indian people have eaten the sour berries for untold centuries, either fresh, dried or cooked into a jam, but the arrival of refined sugar in the late 1800s must have changed the flavor profile of the finished jam.

Now we typically use a steam juicer to extract the dark reddish liquid, which is about the color and consistency of pomegranate juice. Steam juicers are very popular in Finland, which has an abundance of wild berries, and most households in rural Finland are said to own a steam juicer. Several different makes of commercially available steam juicers are from Finland.

A steam juicer is like a double boiler, but actually in three sections: the bottom section holds water, which is brought to boil; the top section is a colander-like basket that holds washed fruit; and then the steam gently induces the fruit to drip its juice into the middle section. A flexible hose is attached to a small port on the side of the middle section, and the juice trickles out of this.

Because there is no physical crushing or pressing of the fruit, as there is in other types of juicers like an apple press, the resulting liquid tends to be purer and contain less pulp. And of course, the seeds, skins and stems of whatever fruit you are steam juicing gets left behind. It is a convenient way to handle the very small elderberries, and it yields seedless juice that can then be made into jelly, syrup, vinaigrette, wine or some other concoction.

Wild elderberries are not as sweet plucked right off the plant as some wild fruits, like blackberries or blueberries, but with some sugar, honey or creativity, they are a pleasant taste of the mountains.

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to

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