food culture

Elderberry Mystery

I went to the most popular place of all to find out why the elderberries on the flat at the mouth of McLean Creek look like this, w with white, blue and vanished berries, which the birds got. 

The popular online world speaks with great surety that the berries get a white coating when ripe. Well, it’s more like wind is rubbing that coating off, or is it something else?

All these images were taken from the same plant, with similar exposure. So, what’s the white coating for? And what does it mean when it’s gone?

Anyone know?

1 reply »

  1. I believe I do!

    The white coating is a yeast, not dissimilar from the yeast that naturally grows on grapes. That yeast is essential to the fermentation process. The simplest wines are just crushed grapes with water poured over them, and that yeast is what starts the fermentation.

    That same sort of white coating is also present on plums, Oregon grapes, and a variety of other fruits and berries. Many fruits and berries have some, but most (other than grapes) usually don’t have enough of that yeast for good independent fermentation (by which I mean without adding more wine yeasts.) But plums do, and I imagine if you got enough elderberries together, they would too!

    What distinguishes different types of wines, other than the colour and variety of grapes, is the different yeasts involved in fermentation, and many of them have specific regional origins. You can buy champagne yeast to make champagne, and that yeast originated in the Champagne region of France. (Of course, it’s been cultivated all over the world by vintners since.)

    I’ve done some home fermentation in the past, and it’s been an idea of mine to brew a liquor with just the natural fruits and yeasts of plums and Oregon grapes for years. But I want to pick it all myself, and I keep missing out on plum season. Maybe I’ll break down and get some plums from the store to try it this year, and add elderberries to the mix too!

    I imagine what’s happening there, with the yeast being gone, is that it’s getting rubbed off when birds or other animals eat the berries. If it’s happening a lot, it might mean that the birds (or bears; bears love ’em) are really hungry this year. But it could also mean something more sinister – perhaps a chemical imbalance is killing the yeast off. Like any other yeast, it needs a certain amount of sugar and moisture, and a particular pH balance, to grow. I’m not an expert, so I couldn’t tell you which.

    Or, the berries might just not be quite ripe enough yet. I notice in the photos it seems to be the berries on the bottom that don’t have the coating. They might be just a little bit younger than the ones on top. If that’s so, I imagine those uncoated berries would still be a bit sour, compared to the (possibly) riper ones on top, even if they’re of a similar size and colour.


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