Archived Mountain Voices

Battered berries

Those who’ve participated in my natural history workshops know that that I’m not a very good source for information regarding edible plants. For the most part, I obtain vegetables at the grocery store or, in season, from our gardens. But there are exceptions.

One flowering wild plant that always gets me to thinking with my stomach is common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), which is just now coming into bloom along roadsides in the lower elevations throughout Western North Carolina. You probably know it already; if not, look for white flat-topped loose clusters of flowers up to six inches or more broad that appear on a shrub three to ten feet tall.

The flowering heads resemble several of the shrubs in the Viburnum genus, but elderberry has compound leaves that are divided so as to display five to eleven Leaflets. Vibrunum leaves aren’t divided.

In the fall, the plant bears deep purple or black fruits that sometimes weigh their branches to the ground. Many use them for making wine or in sweet breads or jam, but, in my experience, they are very irregular as to taste when eaten directly off the shrub. Some fruits on a given plant can be delightfully tasty while those on an adjacent branch will be insipid.

Elderberry blossoms, however, never let you down. The entire flowering head fried up in a fritter batter makes a crunchy summertime treat that more than repays the effort of harvesting and preparation.

American Indians were (and are) the real experts on using plants as economical food sources. If a plant wasn’t worth their time, they didn’t fool with it. In Native Harvests: Recipes and Botanicals of the American Indian (Vintage Books, 1979), E. Barrie Kavasch provided the following recipe for Elder Blossom Fritters:

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“Prepare a light batter, beating together 2 cups fine white cornmeal, 1 lightly beaten egg, 1 cup water, and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup. Heat 1/4 cup corn oil on a griddle and drop batter by large tablespoons onto it, immediately placing 1 elder-blossom flower-cluster in the center of each raw fritter and pressing lightly into the batter. Fry for 3 to 5 minutes, or until golden. Flip and fry for 3 minutes on the other side. Drain on brown paper. Serve hot, sprinkled with additional loose blossoms and maple sugar. (This amount of batter is sufficient for preparing 16 flower clusters.)”

My wife, Elizabeth, makes a similar batter, substituting fine white flour for the cornmeal and beer for the water. She sometimes uses daylily or squash blossoms in place of the elderberry clusters.

But be careful. Let’s suppose you spot an elderberry-like plant, except that it has elongated yellowish clusters. You get out your identification manual it turns out to be red-berried elder (Sambucus pubens), which grows primarily at higher elevations in the westernmost counties of North Carolina.

So, you take some clusters home to cook up following the above recipe. After all, if it’s in the same genus (Sambucus) as common elderberry, it must be OK to eat. Wrong. All parts of red elderberry — sometimes called “stinking elder” — are poisonous. It won’t kill you, but it’ll cause you to think twice about making careful field identifications of the plants you’re going to eat.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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