Elderberries

Elderberry bush
Elderberry makes good juice, wine, jam, syrup, medicines and more. Photo from Conservation Plants for the Northeast, Soil Conservation Service Program Aid No. 1154.

By Roberta Bailey

My first memory of elder bushes was in my best friend’s yard. Her father had a neat row of the plants, mulched with peanut hulls. He made wine with the berries. We were forbidden to pick any of the fruit, and upon tasting the raw berries, the ban suited me fine. My friend and I spent hours sifting through the mulch looking for a whole peanut. We never found one.

As an adult, I have gained a greater appreciation for the plant and her fruit. Canadian or American elder (Sambucus canadensis) is considered by some to be the Great Mother, all powerful and all healing, every part of her, from root to bark, leaf, flower and berry, having healing properties. The berries make a heavy wine, fine juice, jelly, jam and syrup. The flowers can be made into delicious fritters.

Though burning elder wood was considered a grave wrong, the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘aeld,’ meaning fire. The pithy-centered branches are easily hollowed into pipes for blowing an ember or fire to full flame. The white, fine grained wood polishes easily and has been used to make needles for net weaving, combs, scientific and musical instruments, skewers, pegs and parts of fishing rods. Its branches make garden posts that “last longer in the ground than an iron rod.” All parts of the plant can be used as dye material.

The herbal uses seem endless, making elder practically a universal remedy. Every plant part has multiple and diverse uses. I was surprised to note that the leaves, when decocted, make a natural insecticide that repels aphids and caterpillars, while an infusion is said to repel mosquitoes if rubbed on the skin. (I plan to test this. Let me know of your trial results as well.) I have had excellent results suppressing a cough with elder flower tea and syrup.

Elder is an extremely hardy (zone 2-3), quick growing, deciduous shrub with 6-inch-long, compound leaves made up of leaflets. As a wild plant it can be tall and rangy, but the newer, hybridized, named varieties form 6- to 10-foot, fountain shaped shrubs. Elder blooms in spring, bearing fragrant, flat-topped, 6- to 10-inch clusters of small, white blossoms. The loosely formed shrub makes a good screen, informal hedge or border.

Fruits and flowers are edible, with fruit ripening in late summer. The berries ripen to blackish purple and are high in vitamin C. Birds love the berries raw, while we humans prefer them cooked into pies and preserves.

In the right location, elder grows quickly. Mature plants can spread to 8 to 12 feet. They prefer full sun but tolerate partial shade. Elder grows naturally on stream and pond banks. It prefers a rich loam or moist clay with a pH of 6 to 8. To fruit well, elder requires a moist, fertile soil. Wet locations are tolerated only if they have good drainage (e.g., the rich bank of a pond or a well-drained area that is wet in spring but moist the remainder of the year).

Plants usually come as bare-root or potted cuttings, looking like a branch with a lot of hairy roots. Plant them in a hole the size of a bushel basket. Return some of the topsoil to the bottom layers of the hole first, then mix some compost in and water as you fill the rest of the hole. Form a rimmed bowl at the top to hold water. Mulch around the plant to protect the shallow roots. Avoid hoeing deeply near the plants.

Fruit is borne on one- to three-year-old wood. Each branch attains its full height in its first year, and in the second year fruits and sends out laterals that will fruit in the third year. After its third year, the branch should be removed, as future fruit will be small. Cut out winter-killed wood in spring. Established shrubs can be cut back by one-half to encourage fruiting wood and to control overall size. Some varieties sucker at the base. These suckers can be cut back to control spreading or can be severed and dug out to start new plants. Plants also root easily from dormant cuttings taken in early spring before the plant breaks bud.

Elder thrives on fertile ground. In spring, dress your plants liberally with compost, under the shrub and out to its drip line. Annual mulching helps ensure a healthy plant that produces lots of new shoots. Plants produce 12 to 15 pounds of fruit per year. A well-maintained elder can bear for 30 to 40 years.

Two varieties are needed for cross-pollination, so plant more than one variety unless wild plants are nearby. The hybrid varieties do exceptionally well in the Northeast’s cold winters.

Varieties

Adams – an early fruiting variety with large clusters of exceptionally large berries; good for early frost areas

York – a very large bush with large berries; ripens mid to late season. Its fruit is larger than that of Adams.

Johns – 5- to 6-foot-tall plant with large berries and clusters; ripens earlier than Adams; extremely vigorous

Nova – a large bush and heavy bearer of sweet, uniform, early ripening fruit; extremely vigorous

Kent – 5- to 6-foot-tall plants with heavy crops of 1/4-inch fruit

Berries are ripe when they are deeply colored and slightly soft. They also get a less shiny, dusky look. The flavor is somewhat like a blackberry but more complex and richer. The berries can be canned, frozen, dried, made into jams, jellies, juice and wine. Elder juice mixed with cider is a delicious, vitamin C-rich, winter treat. I make a syrup and freeze small cubes of it to mix with juices.

Elder has few insect or disease problems. Birds, the main predator, can strip a bush overnight. If you want fully ripe berries, consider covering the bushes with a net or stringing flash tape. Late varieties seem to have less bird pressure.

Bibliography

Creasy, Rosalind, The Gardener’s Handbook of Edible Plants, Sierra Club Books, 1986.

Hill, Lewis, Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden, Storey Communications, Inc., 1992.

Hopman, Ellen Evert, Tree Medicine, Tree Magic, Phoenix Publishing, Inc.. 1991.

Rodale, J.I., and staff, editors, How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method, 1961 and 1999.

Saint Lawrence Nurseries Planting Guide, St. Lawrence Nurseries, 325 State Highway 345, Potsdam, NY 13676, 315-265-6739; www.sln.potsdam.ny.us/; [email protected].

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