The incredible Elderberry plant - they offer food, medicine, nutrients and landscape beauty for us, and provide a habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and others. The woody stems, abundant leaves, delicate flowers and of course, the fruit, can all be used in the household and in the garden.
The delicate elderberry flowers are irresistible to pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies. The profuse, flat, shallow flowers are a perfect nectar source for a wide range of pollinators and beneficial insects.
Elderberry flowers are not only attractive and delicious to our pollinator friends - they’re delicious for us! Try them in sweet fritters and make an incredibly fragrant medicinal teas. 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 leafy or fruit salads, frozen into flower cubes, or floated in party drinks.
Infusing elderflowers in wine or lightly-flavored liqueurs produces excellent cordials. They can be used in syrups and jams or fermented along with pears to make a light, flowery-fruity wine.
As a cosmetic, 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.
The thick lower stems of the elderberry can are quite strong. Because of their strength, length and straightness, ancient and modern cultures utilized mature elder wood for making 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.
The ultimate reward for growing elderberry plants is the berry itself. Each flower in the cluster will produce one small, smooth, globular green berry. The berries turn various shades as they ripen, from green to deep purple, black or blue. As the cluster ages, the ripe fruits develop a whitish waxy bloom, which is perfectly safe to eat so long as the fruits are fully ripe. Never consume a green berry and ripe berries are best consumed cooked.
All elderberry varieties are perennial, multi-stemmed shrubs characterized by their upright, bushy appearance and a tendency to grow in large colonies if not kept in check.
It takes about three years for an elderberry bush to become fully productive. The elderberry spends its first year establishing a vigorous root system. In the second year, it begins to establish a healthy base of canes and will flower and bear a bit of fruit. In the third year, with its root system established, the elderberry will produce a good crop of berries. As the saying goes, the elderberries growth goes from "sleep, to creep, then leap".
Although some elderberry varieties will self pollinate, all elderberries produce a bigger harvest when they are able to cross-pollinate with another elderberry plant. It is recommended that you plant in pairs, no more than 60 feet apart, for the full benefit of good cross pollination.
Soil: Elderberries grow in small clusters and large colonies and can thrive in the most challenging of soils - from sandy loam to gravel and even heavy clay.
Water: Native Elderberries are typically found in moist forest clearings, field edges and along streams, ditches and roadsides. However, because they are shallow-rooted, any excess moisture around the plant location needs to drain away quickly or the plant will not survive.
Location: Select an area in full sun to partial shade. Like most fruiting plants, elderberries will need at least 6 hours of sunlight to produce a good harvest, and full sun is best. Morning sun is better than late afternoon sun. Choose a site that will allow the plant to get as much as 12 feet tall and 8-10 feet across as well. Many commercial growers mow down the season's growth of established plants each fall to keep the bush low for easier harvesting.
Due to their large size, gardeners may choose to plant elderberries in the middle of the yard, but they can easily be incorporated into an ornamental landscape as focal points, anchors, shade plants or even hedges. They are also suitable for privacy, wind and dust screens along roads and fence lines. Remember, Elderberries are also excellent plants to grow if you want to attract songbirds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife.
Spacing: Allow plenty of space between plants. The more air that can circulate between the shrubs, the better they will fare against leaf structure diseases. Because they can grow up to 12 feet tall and six feet across, mature bushes will need lots of room to thrive.
Planting: Thoroughly loosen the soil in a 2-3 foot diameter around the planting hole and amend it with compost. Add sand or gravel to help improve drainage if necessary. Because of their shallow root system, apply several inches of mulch to smother weed competition.
Once the berries have ripened to a deep purple color, cut the stem of the berry cluster several inches below the cluster. The little bit of stem left on the cluster becomes a useful handle when processing.
The goal at harvest is to remove the elderberries from their small stems, separate the ripe fruit from the unripe berries, and clean away any stems, leaves and faded flowers. To quickly accomplish this, place the elderberry clusters in paper bags and freeze them for at least 24 hours. Once the fruit clusters have been removed from the freezer, the berries will roll off their stems.
To remove unripe berries and debris, fill a container with cold water and pour in a portion of the detached berries. The ripe berries will sink to the bottom while the chaff and unripe berries will 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. Repeat this process until all the debris has been separated before freezing, dehydrating, or cooking the elderberries.
Anything you can make with blueberries can be made with elderberries. And like blueberries, research tells us 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 also high in protein and contain healthful amounts of vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), calcium, iron and phosphorus.
Elderberries have traditionally been used in pies, cakes, jams, preserves, relishes, compote, sauces, juice, syrup, toppings, elder raisins and more. The most celebrated elderberry product is elderberry wine!
Elderberry as a Medicine
In addition to being tasty and nutritious, 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.
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. Dried elderflowers can also be used as a styptic to stop minor bleeding.
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.
BONUS! Elderberry Pesticide Recipe!
Dried elderberry leaves can be made into a natural pesticide that repels biting and chewing insects. To make this DIY pesticide, gently simmer 1 cup of dried elderberry leaves in 1 quart of water for 15-20 minutes while 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.