By Roberta Bailey
Few plants are as carefree and easy to grow as elder or elderberries, Sambucus canadensis and S. nigra. Also known as common or American elder, this pest-free perennial shrub grows in many soil conditions and prefers the wetter areas where little else will thrive. Yet some people would ask why they should bother to grow elder bushes.
Elder is an ancient plant whose history and wide range of medicinal uses could fill a book. Every part of the tree has been used medicinally, from the delicate white flowers and dark purple berries to the bark on the roots. The leaves can be decocted or infused to make a natural insecticide that repels aphids and caterpillars, mosquitoes and gnats. The ripe berries are delicious used in teas, wines, jellies, juices, preserves and baked goods. The birds love them. Elder flowers can be dried or tinctured and used as a remedy for fevers, bronchitis, pneumonia and measles. Elder flowers dilate the skin pores and promote sweating. Salves and washes made from elder leaves and flowers help heal many skin conditions. (Although The American Horticultural Society warns, in The A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, that “contact with the leaves may irritate skin.”) The root bark has been used in remedies for headache, mucus congestion, and as a poultice for mastitis. The upper bark is a purgative in large doses. In small doses it has been used as a diuretic for kidney and heart problems. For more specific information on these and many other elder remedies, consult a good medicinal herbal and see “Elder: An Ally for the Flu Season,” by Deb Soule, The MOF&G, Dec. 1997-Feb. 1998. Also note the warning given by Steven Foster and James A. Duke (A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants): “Bark, root, leaves and unripe berries toxic; said to cause cyanide poisoning, severe diarrhea. Fruits edible when cooked. Flowers not thought to be toxic ….
Elder stems can be used to make garden fence posts (elder is said to last like iron) and, due to their pithy core, pipes, spigots and pegs. The white, close-grained wood polishes easily, making it a good wood for combs, skewers, needles and toys.
Elder is a 6- to 12-foot broad, multi-stemmed perennial shrub with an irregular crown and spreading branches. The 6- to 9-inch-long leaves are opposite and pinnately compound. Elder blooms in late spring, forming large, flat, white umbels or flower clusters that are pleasantly fragrant. The berries ripen to a deep maroon or dark purple in late summer. Their flavor is sweet, somewhat like a blackberry but richer.
Elder favors stream or pond banks or rich moist soil. Extremely hardy and adaptable, it thrives from zone 3 to 9 and at altitudes to 5000 feet. It grows well near pines, and does best in full sun to partial shade.
Choose your location carefully. Elder spreads by seed and root suckers. The suckers can be controlled by mowing – if they’re not coming up in vegetable or flower gardens or any other plantings. Lewis Hill says that the berries are harmful to chickens and turkeys.
Elder can be bought as a potted for bare-root plant, or you can dig a side shoot from a neighbor’s shrub. A potted plant has all of its roots intact and will get off to a quick start. A bare-root plant will spend more time establishing its roots, but will grow fine. Bare-root plants need to be set out in early spring, while potted plants can be set as late as July, if they’re well watered. Elderberries can be grown as individual bushes or as a hedge. Space plants 7 to 10 feet apart. If rows are planned, space them 10 feet apart.
Dig each hole big enough so that you can spread the plant’s roots out. Mix compost with the soil. Place the elder at the same level as it was growing in the nursery or pot. Fill the hole with alternate layers of soil and water. Create a rim around the outer edge of the filled hole so that rain or irrigation water will not run off. Water plants heavily for the first month, then see that they get at least 1 inch of water per week until late summer. Pinching off the top of young plants the first summer encourages side-branching and earlier bearing. Unlike many plants, early bearing does not harm elder bushes.
Depending on how well they grow, elders can bear in two to four years. The chokecherry-sized berries ripen in late summer or early fall, turning dark purple and softening. Birds may be a problem. In some areas, they have eaten so many of the earlier maturing wild elderberries that they ignore the cultivated elder. If this is not the case in your yard, pick the clusters a few days before they’re ripe and let them mature in a warm room. Elder berries are easy to pick. They can be frozen for later use. They can be made into wine or vitamin-C loaded juice, mixed with cider, or made into preserves or syrup. I know people who can a light elder berry syrup and drink it with hot water all winter as a health remedy. The berries also make a purple dye.
Elder is pest- and disease-free in the North.
Prune elderberries whenever you have the tools in hand. Cut out any broken branches, and as the shrub matures, remove older, corky stalks that no longer produce well. Elder bears on new growth, and light pruning can promote such growth. Mowing can control any unwanted suckers.
Elder is partially self-unfruitful, which means that two varieties are needed for good pollination. Recommended varieties include:
Adams – Large crops of medium sized, early ripening berries on strong bushes.
Johns – Large berries, later than Adams not as productive.
York – Ripens late on large, productive bushes with good-sized fruit.
Nova – Fairly early heavy bearer of good-sized fruit.
New York #21 – One of best of the new hybrids, large berries ripen mid-season on medium-sized bush.
I’m excited about elder and its many uses. I plan to plant enough for the birds and for me.
Fedco Trees catalog, 2001
Hill, Lewis, Fruits & Berries for the Home Gardener, 1992, Storey Communications, Inc.
Hopman, Ellen Evert, Tree Medicine, Tree Magic, 1992, Phoenix Publishing, Inc.
Millspaugh, Charles F., American Medicinal Plants, 1974, Dover Publications