Elderberries are used for food, herbal remedies and as an ornamental plant. With the current interest in plants that are both ornamental and edible, elderberries have much to offer the gardener. Folklore is filled with references to elders, depending on the culture and the century they were either the witch’s friend or her mortal enemy. There are native species of elderberries in Europe, North America and Asia.
There is a lot of confusion about the classification of elderberries. While the European elder is classified as Sambuccus nigra, North American black elderberries are said to be a sub-species by some botanists Sambuccus nigra ( S. nigra ssp Canadensis); and by others as a separate species Sambuccus canadensis. While the leaves, flowers and berries are very similar the plants have different growth characteristics. American elders are more bush-like than European elders and sucker readily. European elders look more like a small tree and rarely sucker. There is a lot of variation even in North American wild plants however, as you can see by driving around the countryside and observing roadside elderberries.
Black elderberries, as the two species above are informally called, are the elderberries that we eat and make into herbal remedies. Other species of elderberry exist and some of those have been turned into the many forms of ornamental elderberries that are available for the garden. These also have berries but not all elderberries are edible for humans, the birds however enjoy all of them.
What elderberries look like
Elderberries have compound leaves with 5-7 leaflets with serrated edges. In some ornamental varieties the leaves are very finely cut and look like fern fronds or the leaves of Japanese Maples. In North America native elderberries are a multi-stemmed bush that can get to 20 feet in height. European elderberries have a more tree like appearance. Ornamental elderberries or sambuccus have varying forms, there are even dwarfed varieties. The plants leaf out very early in the spring. In June they are covered with flat lacy umbels of white or pink flowers with a lemony scent and are loved by bees and butterflies. The flowers usually turn into clusters of blue-black berries, but some species and some ornamental selections have berries of other colors.
Berries, flowers, leaves and roots are all used for herbal remedies but it is the berries that probably get the most use. The plants are part of traditional medicines for both Europeans and Native Americans. In Europe berries and flowers are turned into wine, and jellies and pies are made from the berries. There is increasing interest in the US in using the berries in a number of food and medicinal products. It is important to know that raw elderberries are poisonous. Chemicals in them are converted to cyanide in the human body and can make someone very ill or even cause death. Cooked well however, they are safe to eat and delicious as well as very nutritious. Elderberry flowers are sometimes dipped in batter and fried.
Health benefits of elderberries
Recently elderberries have been extensively studied as alternative medicinal plants and a lot of data is supporting claims of medicinal value. Of course we are all aware now of the value of anthocyanins, those pigments in plants which have antioxidant qualities and support healthy immune systems as well as eliminating free radicals that cause cell death. Elderberries are also sources of vitamins A and C and a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6. They also contain sterols, tannins, and essential oils.
Elderberry plant parts have stimulatory effects on the respiratory and circulatory system, diuretic properties and when used topically have anti-inflammatory actions. They are used in digestive complaints for both diarrhea and constipation. Currently they are being sold as a remedy for the symptoms of colds and flu. (They do not cure colds or flu, they make you more comfortable). Elderberry extract, teas, or lozenges are used to ease sinus congestion, sore throat and other cold and flu symptoms and the medical community supports this use.
Research is ongoing to see if chemicals derived from elderberries can lower cholesterol and inhibit tumor formation as well as help in several other medical conditions.
If you want to grow elderberries for the berries several cultivars have been developed that have superior fruit production. You can find them in many garden catalogs. ‘York’, ‘Adams’, ‘Kent’, ‘Johns’ and ‘Nova’ are some varieties. Like many fruits elderberries will produce much better if two different varieties are planted fairly close together for proper pollination.
Elderberries are being developed for beautiful ornamental plants both by selection and by crossing several species of elderberries. When sold for ornamental use they are usually referred to as Sambuccus. The varieties ‘Black Beauty’, ‘ Thundercloud’ and ‘Black Lace’ have delicate divided leaves of a dark maroon black as well as pink flowers. They are often used as a substitute for Japanese Maple as they are hardier and will grow well in the sun. The dark leaved sambuccus are wonderful combined with golden or chartreuse leaved plants.
There is a variegated green and white leaved Sambuccus known as ‘Pulverulenta' but it’s often just sold as ‘variegated’. ‘Madonna’ and Aureomarginata' are Sambuccus with golden variegation of the leaves. ‘Frances’ has leaves variegated with light green, cream and yellow, with purple berries. 'Maxima' has very large flower heads of white with rosy-purple stalks that remain after the flowers drop. ‘Goldbeere’ has light green foliage and golden berries. Selections of Red-berried elder, Sambucus racemosa, have produced the beautiful golden foliaged plants 'Sutherland Gold' and ‘Golden Locks’ which have red berries.
Sambucus caerulea- blue elder- has white flowers and powder blue berries and is hardy to zone 5. There are some dwarf varieties on the market 'Tenuifolia' is one with fine fern-like leaves and a mounding habit. It is important to remember that while some ornamental Sambuccus have edible fruit (if cooked) some do not. Most varieties which have black fruit are edible, ‘Goldbeere’ fruit is said to be edible also, but pay attention to the description of the plant which should state whether the fruit is edible.
Elderberries will grow in a sunny location in almost any soil, although they prefer a rich soil with a slightly acidic pH. They will also do well in part shade or dappled shade. Fruit production is heaviest in full sun. While they need good moisture, especially in the first year of establishment, elderberries do not thrive in poorly drained areas. They have shallow roots and you need to be careful weeding and working around them not to destroy roots. Mulching around the plants is a good idea. Fertilizing with some 10-10-10 formula fertilizer each spring as they green up, about ½ pound to a mature plant, will increase plant vigor and berry production. Elderberries have few insect pests or diseases. They will be eaten by deer but are not a favorite plant.
Young ornamental elderberries benefit from pinching back the growing tips of each shoot several times each season which will make the plant fuller and more attractive in shape. All elderberry plants need some selective pruning to remove the oldest wood and keep the shape and size of the plant in bounds. Elderberries being managed for fruit production need to more extensively pruned to keep younger, more productive stems in the majority.
Even “wild” elderberries are attractive if you have room for a large bush and are very good at drawing bees, butterflies and birds to your property. Elderberries are easy to start from hardwood cuttings so you may want to take a winter walk before they break dormancy and collect some cuttings to start your own elderberry patch.
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