Posted by Amanda Travis on 10/15/2018 to Herb Profiles
Ah, the beautiful elderberry. It's amazing how many people that I come across that have no idea what an elderberry is or what it's good for. Not only are they good for our pollinators, but they are especially beneficial for us humans, as well. From syrup to lozenges, to fruit added to your pancakes or oatmeal, you are limited only by your imagination. I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that elderberries are poisonous until they are cooked. Absolutely no parts of this plant should be ingested raw. Elderberries contain amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside that produces hydrogen cyanide in the digestive tract. This is a form of cyanide. This cooks out of the berries with the use of heat.
Although they are not widely grown here in North America, they can be found along roadsides and in fields. Elderberries are worth growing, as they are beautiful. Their flower umbrels make quite a sight and have a delightful scent. Some say the berries taste like a medley of grapes, blackberries, and raspberries. They have just enough sweet to go along with their tartness. If you are wanting to grow these berries rich in antioxidants, make sure you have enough room, as they are considered to be invasive and can easily take over an area. I have read that they are not for people with small gardens, but I disagree. If you keep them managed, they should not be a problem.
TYPES: Sambucus nigra, European elderberries, reach between 10 to 30 feet tall. It bears large clusters, or umbrels, of yellowish/white flowers, usually around June, with berries following in September. Keep in mind this time frame can vary, depending on your location. These types of elderberries grow in zones 5-8.
S. canadensis, American or sweet elder, grows about 6-12 feet tall. It produces similar clusters of flowers in late June, with the berries following around September. These grow in zones 3-9. On both types of elders, the berries are a purplish/black when fully ripe.
According to http://www.healthy-holistic-living.com/, “The medicinal use of the elderberry is nothing new. Mentioned in ancient medicinal texts, the humble black elderberry has been used as a multi-purpose treatment for centuries. In 400 BC, Hippocrates referred to the elderberry bush as his “medicine chest” because of its varied uses, and it was mentioned several times in the writings of Pliny the Elder when he recorded the practices of the ancient Romans.”
PLANTING: Elderberries like a sunny location, although they are perfect understory plants. As long as they have access to some sunlight, you should be fine. They thrive in deep, moist soil that is well supplied with organic matter or compost. I have them growing in the shade, as well as in direct sunlight, in drier conditions, as well as wetter conditions. Each does exceptionally well. Set young plants approximately five feet apart in rows at least eight feet apart. Elderberry flowers are self-pollinating, although they are more productive if two or more cultivars are planted near each other.
CARE: Add organic matter, which not only helps to retain moisture but adds nutrients to the roots. Fertilization isn't needed if you are applying organic matter to the area. Keep watered in drier regions.
PRUNING: Prune away dead canes in spring. Cut out all of the old canes whenever the plants become crowded. Vigorous elderberries produce an abundance of suckers, so keep plants in neat rows by frequent clipping or mowing. I grow a large patch towards the back of my property. I allow these to grow as they would naturally, with minimal pruning.
PROBLEMS: Elderberries are free from disease and most insect pests. I have noticed that bagworms like to get into the plants and make their nests. I just cut out the affected branches and destroy. Birds love the fruit, but I have found there are usually enough berries to share with my feathered friends. If you do notice that you are losing too many berries to the birds, harvest a couple days before they are completely ripe. The birds prefer the berries when they are riper. Set the berries in a warm place so they can finish ripening. Birds also like to make their nests inside of the bushes.
Winter damage can be a problem in some areas. Fortunately, the roots are quite hardy, and berries form on new growth. So, cold weather rarely affects the crop. If you live in a location that has early frosts, you may want to consider early ripening cultivars.
HARVESTING: The clusters of tiny white flowers in summer are good for tea. Pick them as soon as they open. To make a tasty tea, add a few flower clusters to a gallon glass jar filled with water and a bit of lemon juice. Set in the sun for a day, strain out the flowers, and add sweetener to your taste. In addition to tea, you can take the flower clusters as soon as they open, dip them in batter, and fry them for a tasty treat.
Soon after blooming, green fruits form, which ripen to a rich, dark color. Pick the entire cluster and strip the berries off. I freeze mine until I get a large enough quantity to make syrups, jams, jellies, vinegar, etc. Some people love elderberry wine. They're an excellent substitute for blueberries in many recipes. Again, make sure you cook the berries before ingesting them.
ELDERBERRY SYRUP RECIPE
2 Quarts Elderberries, fresh or frozen is best (dried can be substituted)
Enough water to cover berries
2 cups natural cane sugar
1 cup raw honey
2 tbsp cinnamon
2 tbsp ginger
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
Add berries with just enough water to cover berries to a large pot. Bring to a boil. If using dried berries, you may need to use more water, as the berries will absorb some of the liquid. Once the berries have been thoroughly cooked, strain and reserve liquid. Compost the pulp. Take the berry liquid and add to a pot. Add the remaining ingredients. Once at a boil, you can lower the temperature to medium-high to help keep the mixture from sticking. Stir constantly, as you don't want the mixture to stick. Keep stirring until the mixture has reached a syrupy consistency. If you want to use cinnamon bark, whole cloves, and fresh ginger, that is entirely up to you. If so, just make sure to strain out the solids before bottling mixture. I like to use ground spices, as it makes the mixture stronger over time with the spices incorporated throughout the syrup. All four of the above spices have medicinal properties, so having the spices incorporated throughout the syrup is an added medicinal benefit. Once the mixture has reached the syrup stage, bottle in fresh bottles or jars and store in the refrigerator for up to three months. I have kept mine in this manner for longer with no problems. You can also can them in jars and store in a dark cabinet indefinitely. If canning, follow instructions on how to can your syrup for the proper length of time-based on your pressure canner. Take a tablespoon each day to build your immune system. I like to add my syrup to my pancakes, oatmeal, or anytime syrup can be used in. It is also great in smoothies.