Elderberries have recently been dubbed a superfood, yet these big, beautiful plants with tiny dark berries have long been renowned for their versatility and flavor. Today, new elderberry cultivars are being bred from their wilder cousins to produce plants with improved disease resistance and higher production rates; a perfect combination for anyone wanting to add these luscious fruits to their edible landscape.
Recognizing Your Elders
Elders and elderberries belong to the Adoxaceae family of plants. Within this family is the elderberry genus known as Sambucus. This large genus contains more than 30 diverse species of shrubs and small trees. However, the two most common edible species of Sambucus in the United States are the relatively small native American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and the larger, more widely cultivated European elderberry (Sambucus nigra). These two species have been used to breed a wide array of commercial and ornamental cultivars that are often referred to as Common elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis).
These three elderberry species have very similar growth habits. All are perennial multi-stemmed shrubs characterized by their upright, bushy appearance and a tendency to grow in large colonies if not kept in check.
All have distinct leaves made up of four to 10 opposite leaflets and one unpaired terminal leaflet. The individual leaflets are long, ovate to lance-shaped with lightly serrated tooth margins and slightly hairy undersides. Each compound leaf can be up to 3 feet long. On hot summer days the leaflets tend to cup or curl upward. Beware of confusing elderberry for the inedible Mountain Ash whose leaflets grow alternately along the stem.
Another distinctive feature of elderberry is the stem, which contains whitish pith at the center. In dormant or dead stems, the pith may be dried up to such a degree that it appears to be hollow. The dry pith is said to make excellent tinder for campfires, and the stem itself can be used as a fire stick to generate the embers used on the tinder. In addition, the leaves, flowers and twigs of elderberry have historically been used as a poultice for minor wounds, burns and inflammation, as well as to soothe insect bites and stings.
The upper stems of elderberry are often brittle enough to be easily snapped in two, but the thick lower stems are quite strong. And because of their strength, length and straightness ancient and modern cultures utilized mature elder wood in the making of tools such as pegs, spiles, spindles, arrow shafts, blowguns and fire sticks, as well as barrettes, combs, buttons, fish lures, flutes, clappers and many other useful items.
Despite the early uses of elderberry, modern science confirms that the leaves, twigs, stems, root and seeds of all elderberry species contain two active alkaloids, sambucine and cyanogenic glycoside, both potentially dangerous toxins when ingested in large quantities. For brevity’s sake, I will discuss this toxin in the following section on elderberry fruit.
In the meantime, I strongly suggest that elderberry wood not be used to make objects such as peashooters and flutes, which are naturally put in or to the mouth.
Despite the potential toxicity of the leaves and stems, they are both eaten by deer, bear, elk and squirrels, just to name a few critters. According to the USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center, the leaves of elderberry are considered decent fodder for domestic livestock. Their page on elderberry rates the fodder, “Good for goats; good to fair for sheep; good to poor for deer; fair for cattle; and fair to poor for horses.”
Apparently, livestock animals find the foliage most desirable after the first heavy frost of the season when other high-nutrient forage is scarce.
In the wild, elderberries are often overlooked until early summer when they begin to bloom. And when it comes to elderberries, the first bonus round goes to the heavenly-scented white (and rarely pink) flat-topped flower clusters.
Each flower in a cluster contains hundreds of tiny, five-petalled radially symmetrical flowers, each having five flattened white petals and five long protruding stamens. These delicate beauties are irresistible to pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.
Elderberry flowers are more than just pretty; they’re delicious. The most common culinary delights made with elderberry flowers are sweet, light, sugar-dusted fritters and fabulously fragrant and medicinal hot or cold tea. Candied elderberry flowers are a long-time favorite that are easy to make and last a long time in storage. The freshly-picked flowers can be sprinkled over green or fruit salads, frozen into flower cubes, or floated atop party drinks and punch.
Infusing elderflowers in wine or lightly-flavored liqueurs produces excellent cordials. They can even be turned into syrups and jams or fermented along with pears to make a light, flowery-fruity wine — a real treat on a cold winter’s night.
The flowers of elderberry are traditionally used by herbalists to make a mild medicinal tea for the treatment of diarrhea, fever, headache and conditions involving inflammation in the body. For centuries, infusions of elderberry flowers have been used to reduce the appearance of freckles, dark spots and blotches on the face and arms and to improve overall clarity of the skin. Dried elderflowers can also be used as a styptic to stop minor bleeding. If you harvest elderberry flowers from wild plants, just be sure to leave enough for the pollinators to feed on and of course, to produce berries for you, the birds and other wildlife.
Bushels of Berries
All this talk about the benefits and uses of elderberries pales in comparison to the ultimate prize, which is the berry itself. Each flower in the cluster will produce one small, hairless, globular (not perfectly round) green berry. As they ripen, the berries turn various shades of deep purple, black or blue. As the cluster ages, the ripe fruits (and sometimes unripe fruits) will develop a whitish waxy bloom, which is perfectly safe to eat so long as the fruits are fully ripe.
To harvest elderberries, cut the stem several inches below the cluster using a small pair of hand shears. This bit of stem becomes a useful handle when processing, which can be time-consuming if you have a big harvest. The trick is to remove the berries from their tiny stems and then separate the ripe fruits from the unripe ones as well as fruit stems, leaves and faded flowers.
This has been a real challenge for commercial producers, but for the average person, there are two ways to get the job done with minimal frustration.
Place the berry clusters in paper bags and freeze them for at least 24 hours. Remove the clusters from the freezer and the berries will roll off their little stems and into your waiting bowl. You will still have to pick out the unripe berries and a little debris, but the initial stripping process goes quickly.
This method may prove difficult if you have a large harvest and not a lot of freezer space. If that is the case, then find a comfy spot in the shade and rub, roll, or comb the berries into a large bucket. When ready, fill the sink or a large bucket with cold water and pour in a manageable amount of berries.
The ripe berries will sink to the bottom while the chaff and unripe berries float to the top. Skim off the debris, scoop out the berries and lay them on a clean bath towel or a screen to drain. If there is a lot of debris, you may want to repeat the process a second time before freezing, dehydrating or cooking the ripe fruits as desired.
Basically, anything you can make with blueberries can be made with elderberries. And like blueberries, research has confirmed that this tart fruit is among one of nature’s most nutritious — a superfood that contains more vitamin C than any other fruit except for black currents. Elderberries are high in protein and contain healthful amounts of vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), calcium, iron and phosphorus.
In addition to being tasty, elderberries are also medicinal. Historically, elderberries have been used to make cough syrups and sore throat remedies, and the extract of elderberry is a proven immune-stimulant with antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
A 1995 study reported that extracts of elderberry fruits inhibited multiple strains of the influenza virus, including H1N1, while reducing severity and duration. Researchers at Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland confirmed these previous findings in 2015.
And speaking of food, elderberries lend themselves to an amazing array of tempting treats, including pies, cakes, jams, preserves, relishes, compote, sauces, juice, syrup, toppings, elder raisins and more. The most celebrated elderberry product has got to be elderberry wine. If you’re game for trying to make your own, there are a plethora of recipes online.
Before we move on to adding elderberries to your edible landscape, we should address the potential toxicity of the genus as a whole and the red-berried types in particular. Although archeologists have proven that some early cultures did indeed consume red-berried elders, they did so only after removing the tiny seeds from the flesh. Today, most authorities on the subject do not recommend eating the fruits of any red elderberry species. It has been known for some time that the seeds of red elderberries contain cyanogenic glycoside, which is converted by the digestive system into hydrogen cyanide.
If enough of this toxin is consumed the results can range from stomach cramps and digestive upset to diarrhea and vomiting — sometimes mild, sometimes severe. If enough seeds are consumed, the toxins produced in the gut can cause death.
It should be pointed out here (for the sake of knowledge, at least) that many common pome fruits, such as cherries, apples and plums also contain cyanogenic glycoside. The difference is that the seeds of these fruits are much larger than those found in elderberries and thus are not typically eaten.
During my research I came across several sources that noted the incidence of mild nausea, stomachache and diarrhea in some people after large quantities of the ripe, raw fruits of common black, purple or blue elderberries were consumed.
This stands to reason: If all elderberries belong to the same genus, they all share similar traits. If the seeds of red elderberries contain cyanogenic glycoside, then the black ones do as well, although apparently in a lesser concentration. It is also said that heating the fruits destroys or diminishes the toxic glycoside. So, to be on the safe side, avoid eating large amounts of raw black, blue or purple elderberries, and avoid eating the red ones altogether.
Functional Landscaping with Elderberry
Elderberries are pretty plants that can vary in size and fullness depending on growing conditions. In deep shade, they might only reach 3 to 5 feet tall and be lean and lanky, while an adjacent patch growing in deep, rich soil and full sun might reach upward of 16 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.
Elderberries generally grow in small clusters and large colonies alike and can thrive in the most challenging of soils; from sandy loam to gravel and even heavy clay. In the wild they are typically found in moist forest clearings, field edges and along streams, ditches and roadsides. In my experience, whenever you find elderberries growing outside of cultivation, you can be sure there is a reliable source of sub-surface moisture.
It is not uncommon for people to take cuttings or divisions of wild elderberries to grow in their home garden.
Be sure to sample the fruit first because the flavor and sweetness of wild elderberry fruits can vary widely from plant to plant. On the other hand, if your initial rootstock or cuttings are a named cultivar and come from a reputable nursery or seed house, the fruit they produce should be consistent and worthy of the effort it takes to bring a patch to maturity.
If you’re not the wild forager type, you will be glad to know that elderberries are easily grown in the yard or garden.
They also make great additions to a food forest — albeit as an edge planting. In years past the number of quality elderberry cultivars were limited to just a handful, but with the upsurge in interest, both in the home garden and commercially, many new varieties have been developed specifically for consistent flavor, fruit production and disease resistance.
In Missouri, some 55 new cultivars from the Midwest have been field tested at the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri, many of which are now used in commercial production.
In addition to production cultivars, several new ornamental varieties of elderberry are also available. Of particular note are two stunning European cultivars; ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Black Lace.’ Both have dark purple-black foliage, but the leaves of ‘Black Lace’ are reminiscent of those found on Japanese maples. Both cultivars also have pink flowers, but the ones sported by ‘Black Beauty’ have a distinct lemon scent.
In addition to ornamental value both of these varieties bear copious clusters of edible black berries. When selecting a variety for the edible home landscape, keep in mind that elderberries are basically self-incompatible.
That is, they need another distinct variety in order to complete pollination. To ensure fruit set, take care to plant two distinct varieties within 60 feet of one another.
Like many gardeners before me, I had it in my mind that elderberries relished wet places. After all, they are often found growing wild along river edges and ditches. The truth is that elderberries don’t mind a generous amount of water or being flooded for short periods of time, but because their roots are so close to the surface they need to have all excess moisture drained away as quickly as possible or they will die.
To ensure your plants get off to a good start, select an area of full sun to partial shade in very hot climates.
If you have to choose, morning sun is better than late afternoon sun. Next, thoroughly loosen the soil in a 2-3 foot diameter around the planting hole and amend it with compost, adding sand or gravel to help improve drainage where necessary. Because of their shallow roots, which are very sensitive to disturbance, weeding elderberry beds can be tricky. The best bet is to apply several inches of organic mulch, applying more each year until the plant is well-established. It takes about three years for elderberry plants to mature, but once they do, they’re capable of competing with even the most aggressive weeds and grasses.
With their large size, many gardeners wind up sticking elderberries out in the middle of the yard where they are easily mowed around. This is fine if you plan on having a large production patch. But if you only want one or two elderberries, why not incorporate them into the ornamental landscape as focal points, anchors, shade plants or even hedges?
They’re definitely pretty enough to pull off being front and center in any garden. They’re also excellent candidates for privacy, wind and dust screens along roads and fence lines and have an incredible ability to aid in the healing of areas scarred by construction, logging, machinery or fire. Elderberries are also excellent plants to grow if you want to attract songbirds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife.
Natural Pesticide Recipe
In an interesting twist, dried elderberry leaves can be made into a natural pesticide that repels biting and chewing insects. Gently simmer 1 cup of dried elderberry leaves in 1 quart of water for 15-20 minutes, keeping the pot covered. Remove the pan from the heat and cool completely before straining through a double layer of cheesecloth.
To use, add an additional quart of cool water and a few drops of dish soap to make the decoction stick to plant leaves. Use this spray to combat aphids, cabbage worms, cucumber beetles, bean beetles and other chewing, sucking pests, as well as fungal infections like downy mildew and black spot.
In general, elderberries are bothered little by insect pests and diseases. You can expect the occasional incidence of powdery mildew and a few cane borers from time to time, but these are often not severe or long-lasting.
The cane borers are easily controlled through regular pruning of older branches. The biggest threats to elderberries are deer, birds, and spotted wing drosophila (SWD). If you can protect young plants from deer for the first three years, a little deer browse in the spring won’t hurt overall fruit production.
Birds love ripe elderberries more than you do, so you may want to cover ripening fruit with lightweight poly row covers, small mesh fabric screening, or even wedding tulle until the harvest is complete.
These days, the most threatening pest for elderberries (and many other soft-fruits, brambles and vegetables) is the aggressive Asian spotted wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) or SWD for short. This tiny invasive non-native fruit fly lays its eggs in developing fruit. As the fruit matures, so do the tiny maggots within. Often, the maggots are difficult to spot with the naked eye, and they are even more difficult to control. For more information on combating SWD, contact your local extension office.
Elderberries have so many admirable qualities that it’s hard to focus on just a few. Besides providing nourishing food and medicine to humans, nectar for our endangered pollinators, and browse for a myriad of bird and wildlife species, elderberry has an uncanny ability to help restore brutalized landscapes and revitalize wildlife habitats.
Paired with their resilience to disease and sheer beauty, it’s no wonder that the common elderberry has been revered for as long as man has walked the earth. If you start now, in a few short years, your luscious landscape will be well on its way to providing you with long-lasting beauty and temptingly tasty fruit for years to come.
By Jill Henderson. This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.