Learn about the elderberry shrub that’s making a comeback, and explore elderberry uses that include culinary, garden, and medicinal purposes.
Click here to read Part 1: What to Do with Gooseberries.
Seldom has a neglected shrub risen so fast in public esteem as the humble American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis or S. nigra subsp. canadensis). It wasn’t too long ago that it was dismissed as a weedy plant of roadsides and barnyards. But that perception has changed dramatically. This new interest in the elderberry owes much to introductions that bear larger fruits or stunning ornamental foliage or flowers on improved forms that are suited to garden settings such as the “edible landscape.”
Its health benefits are a definite plus with health-conscious gardeners and cooks. To cap its exalted position, it was designated the 2013 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association for its long history as a useful plant.
Elderberries In the Wild
American elderberries form thickets from Nova Scotia south to Florida, and west to Manitoba and Texas. Plants grow up to 15 feet tall in wet or dry soil, their branches sprouting deeply cut, serrated-edged green leaves that are shed in the fall. By mid to late June, the shrub’s very twiggy branches bear tiny cream-colored, musk-scented florets in large clusters to which butterflies are attracted. Ripe berries on purplish stems in late summer, are dark purple, and are quickly eaten by birds if not picked.
The roots, green stems, leaves and unripe fruits contain powerful alkaloids and cyanide-like glycosides which could be toxic if ingested; the red berries of the earlier bearing native S. racemosa are poisonous and should never be eaten.
Black elder (S. nigra), the European species, is native to Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia. It grows more like a small tree to 30 feet; its flowers and fruits are similar to the American elderberry. Both its unripe and ripe fruit, however, are unsafe to eat raw. When cooked, fruits and flowers of both types are safe to eat.
Elderberries In the Garden
In the home landscape, the elderberry is very adaptable to soil and site, growing well in almost any ground, in sun or partial shade. To plant, presoak roots, and while they are soaking, dig a hole deep enough to accommodate them. Water the hole, letting the water drain in, then spread out the roots with attached stems (trimmed back 8 to 12 inches) on a little mound of soil, fill in the hole with soil, tamp it down gently, then water.
Next, lay down a thick mulch in layers in a ring around the stems, taking care not to touch them: first a layer of paper or cardboard, then a top layer of straw or rotted sawdust. To maintain fertility, add a bushel of rotted compost or manure every spring at the bush’s drip line (where the branches extend), and your favorite source of 10-10-10 fertilizer.
Stems (also called “canes”) are short-lived but renew themselves by sending up fresh shoots. In late winter or early spring, cut out old looking stems, as well as those that are dead. The most prolific fruit is born on 1-3-year old stems; 6-8 stems are enough for each plant. Pruning will not only allow sun into the center of the shrub, but will help to give it an attractive, vase-like form. An overgrown or poor producing plant can be renewed by cutting it back to the ground to stimulate fresh shoots. Elderberries are partially self-fruitful but benefit from having another variety close by, although we have not found it necessary.
An elderberry hedge is incomparable in bloom and an asset all season, as it was on our Cape Breton farm. In our new gardens they grow as striking accents, single specimens in the landscape, or in a mixed shrub border. One of the great benefits of planting elderberries close to your back (or front) door is being able to observe swallow-tailed butterflies alighting on the giant flower clusters.
Elderberry Varieties to Choose
The American elderberry and the European elder (S. nigra), are hardy to Zone 4. Virtually all varieties are bred from these two types. Below is a partial listing.
- ‘Adams.’ 1 or 2. American, to 10 feet tall. It bears large fruit and is often planted with ‘Johns’ for greater fruiting.
- ‘Aurea.’ American, 5 to 12 feet tall. There is a lot of confusion over this cultivar in the trade. The edible variety should be labeled S. canadensis; never buy any plant labeled S. racemosa if you intend to use the fruit. Foliage colors vary from light green to golden; golden types need to have full sun all season to retain their color. Prolific berries range from reddish-purple to black.
- ‘Black Lace.’ European, to 8 feet tall. Its dark purple foliage is similar to that of a Japanese maple, its flat pink flowers are produced in tiers. Very ornamental but not a prolific fruit bearer in my experience. The foliage is lovely in fresh bouquets.
- ‘Goldbeere.’ European, upright, 6 to 8 feet tall. It produces clusters of striking golden berries that are tempting, but never eat them fresh.
- ‘Johns.’ American, to 12 feet tall. Abundant early fruit.
- ‘Nova.’ American, compact to 6 feet. Large, sweet fruit.
- ‘Scotia.’ American, to 10 feet tall. Mid-season fruit ripens just before ‘Adams.’
- ‘Marginata.’ European, from 5 to 6 feet tall. Attractive green and white foliage but not as vigorous as other varieties. Good foliage all season as well as fruit.
- ‘York.’ American, to 6 feet tall. It is said to produce the largest fruit of all. Pollinates well with ‘Nova,’ good for partial shade.
Virtually every part of the plant has been used to produce something, from dyes and children’s toys to a panacea for treating a variety of internal and external ailments. In Old World folk medicine its berries as well as its flowers were used in preparations to treat wounds and skin afflictions (from its tannin properties), and as a remedy for colds, coughs, and fevers. In the New World, some Native American tribes used the elderberry in a similar way, and also to treat rheumatism.
In Europe, commercial black elder production and processing is well developed to supply over-the-counter herbal supplements, extracts, syrups, lozenges, as well as food products such as pies, jellies, jams, and beverages. In North America, there has been an increase in the availability of elderberry-based, non-prescribed medicinals. The fruit of the elderberry is high on the list of antioxidants. Scientific evidence for its benefits is suggestive but inconclusive.
In addition, the berries contain more Vitamin A and Vitamin C than most other comparable small fruits (but not black currants), so it seems like a good idea to pack whatever health benefits they possess into delicious dishes and preserves.
Elderberry Health Benefits
The University of Maryland Medical center provides a good introduction to some of elderberry’s health benefits. Here is a section from their page:
“Elderberry, or elder, has been used for centuries to treat wounds, when applied to the skin. It is also taken by mouth to treat respiratory illnesses such as cold and flu. In many countries, including Germany, elder flower is used to treat colds and flu. Some evidence suggests that chemicals in elder flower and berries may help reduce swelling in mucous membranes, such as the sinuses, and help relieve nasal congestion. Elder may have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and anticancer properties.
“Elderberry also contains flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties and may help prevent damage to the body’s cells. However, very few studies have been done in humans, so researchers don’t know how effective elder may be.”
The flowers can be used to make fritters, substituted for part of the flour in pancakes (makes them very light), dried for tea with mint (drink this for a sore throat or when you feel a cold coming on), and to flavor gooseberry jelly. The ripe fruits can be turned into juice, syrup, jams, jellies, and pies.
Since the berries are ripening now, here’s an easy and healthy syrup to use as a topping for ice cream or frozen yogurt, as the base for a cold summer drink, or to alleviate cold symptoms. Pour a little over ice cubes, add water to taste, and add a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint.
Elderberry Syrup Recipe
- Sugar or honey
- Cook up whatever elderberries you have on hand, removing as much of the stems as possible (freezing makes the job easier).
- Add enough water to come halfway up the fruit. Cover and bring it to boil, then simmer and mash for about 20 minutes.
- Strain fruit through several layers of cheesecloth that excludes all twiggy matter. Hang up resulting jelly bag and let drain for several hours.
- When completely drained, measure juice.
- Add an equal amount of juice from cooked up and drained crabapples or a tart apple (I use apple parings and cores from making applesauce).
- Bring juices to a boil in a wide-mouth pot not more than half full; add a little lump of butter to prevent boiling over.
- For 2 cups of juice, stir in about 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 cups sugar or honey (a lesser amount if you use honey)
- Cook uncovered until mixture is thickened, not more than 10 minutes. You should have a syrup, which is thicker than juice but not as thick as jelly. Pour into scalded pint jars and seal.
For more recipes be sure to check out the latest editions of my fruit book, The Old-Fashioned Fruit Garden and Old-Fashioned Jams, Jellies, and Sweet Preserves: The Best Way to Grow, Preserve, and Bake with Small Fruit.
Jo Ann Gardner is a celebrated herb gardener and book author. She and her husband live on 100 acres on a lonely peninsula, at the end of a badly rutted dirt road, in the hinterlands of Cape Breton on the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. Read Jo Ann’s books, connect with her on Facebook.
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