Elderberry: Plant Profile

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Native Elderberry 2

An elderberry tree is not difficult to identify, especially when they are in full fruit.  The umbels of small berries are not easily confused with any other kind.

elderberry tree 2
Elderberry bushes can be pruned to be kept smaller in a garden but given free rein they can grow up to 30' tall.

elderberries macro 2 The

Sambucus Caerulea is distinguished for its light blue appearance that the white bloom on the berries gives them.

tiny berries 2

Different cultivars of elderberry may produce different sized berries, but even the larger ones are pretty small.

stripped 2

You can see the structure of the umbel better when stripped of berries.  Its branching is intricate and rather pretty.

Most cultivars of elderberry are edible and used in both food and medicine.  Although the elderberry has somewhat fallen out of popularity outside the grandmother crowd, it has been highly valued by people for hundreds (possibly even a couple thousand) of years.  The berries have been used to make jellies, syrups, liqueurs, and pies while the delicate cream-colored flowers have been used to make teas, wine, and "champagne".  The wood of the elderberry was used by craftsmen and in pipe making and the flowers have been used in cosmetics since the Roman times at least and are still used in cosmetics to this day.

Medicinal uses: the number one medicinal use for elderberry is as a cold and influenza remedy.  It is used in various forms to alleviate feverish conditions, and as an immune system stimulant.  It is prescribed for allergies, congestion, ear and throat infections, burns, inflamed skin and mucous membranes, and for arthritis and rheumatism.

Nutritional value: elderberries are high in vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamins B6, and iron.  They are a powerful antioxidant and are high in fiber.

Elderberry is native to Europe and North America.  The European elderberry (Sambucus Nigra) has dark bluish purple berries while there are two  North American elderberries, Sambucus Canadensis is native to the area east of the Rockies, and Sambucus Caerulea (a sub species of Sambucus Nigra) is native to the area West of the Rockies and extending all the way down to Mexico.

All the elderberries I have mentioned above are edible though it is important to note that it is best not to eat the flowers or berries raw unless you are very sure of the plant's specific variety because some varieties have poisonous parts without being cooked*.  Unless you know exactly which species of elderberry you have you should always cook the berries and flowers before eating them.  If you are growing your own you can pick the specific variety you would like to grow; if you are foraging for elderberry you may find any of the types mentioned above growing in the wild.  Any elderberry with blue or purple berries is safe to consume when cooked, what you need to avoid is any elderberry with red berries.

Sambucus Racemosa (Red Elder) and Sambucus Canadensus "Aurea" are two types of elderberry with red berries that are poisonous.  While some red berry varieties may be safe to use under certain circumstances, it is best to avoid them unless you are an herbal expert.

Red berries = poison.

Black, blue, or purple berries = edible and safe when cooked.

That 's the most important thing you need to know.

Why would you want to grow this yourself?  Elderberry is the most popular cold and flu remedy used in Europe even to this day and the scientific evidence supporting the medicinal claims of this plant are growing all the time.  In the National Geographic Desk Reference to Nature's Medicine they cite that many modern studies have been done to test the folksy claims of the power of the elderberry to heal and that the tests have shown that elderberry has consistently reduced the severity of flu and cold symptoms as well as reducing the length of illness.  This plant continues to be of interest to scientists as well of herbalists.

You can still forage elderberry but with public wild lands continually shrinking, most people's access to wild elderberry is decreasing all the time.  This is a powerful enough herbal with enough uses to earn it a place in your garden.

Cultivation facts:

  • Elderberry is a large deciduous bush growing up to 30'.
  • It grows quickly and suckers freely.
  • All elderberries prefer a sunny location.
  • All elderberries require cross pollination with other varieties.  Either plant two different varieties in their own spots in your garden or if you have limited space, plant two varieties in one hole.
  • European elders do particularly well in alkaline soils though all elders are adaptable to most soil types.  Most elders enjoy a wet soil which is why it is common to find elders growing along the banks of rivers, however, once established an elder has few watering requirements.
  • propagation can be accomplished with seeds or cuttings.  The seeds need stratification.  Cuttings should be taken from semihardwood in the summer from new growth.
  • Because elderberries sucker freely they can take over your yard unless you control them.  However, the bush is not long-lived.
  • Elderberry is rarely bothered by pests as its bark has a natural insecticide in it.

*One of my herbal books says that all parts of the elderberry Sambucus Canadensis are poisonous (at least mildly) unless cooked.  Although I foraged and correctly identified the elderberries I'm using for elderberry syrup, and theoretically I should be able to eat these raw, they don't taste very good raw anyway.  I tried one.  The flavor is greatly enhanced by being cooked.  Furthermore, throughout my elderberry reading I have read that all the bark and twigs of all the elderberry varieties are at the very least mildly poisonous which is why it is suggested in a number of sources to take care to remove all of the stems of the berries before using in recipes.  I would certainly follow this advice.


**The only problem you will run into with the two in one hole planting is that eventually as you prune old growth away or it dies off you may end up with one of the two varieties completely dying out.  If this happens you can always take a cutting of a cross pollinator and replant it with the more mature plant: dig up any existing suckers and plant your cutting there, near the base of the mature planting. Make your own elderberry syrup: Elderberry Syrup: DIY Apothecary Information for this article comes from: "The Complete Herb Book" by Jekka McVicar "Desk Reference to Nature's Medicine" by National Geographic "The Essential Natural Health Bible" by Nerys Purchon Nutrition Data- an online resource for nutritional data (nutritional information from the USDA)

Be sure to also check out our post on making elderberry syrup:
Elderberry Syrup: DIY Apothecary

1 Comment

Very nice article! I just discovered two wild sambucus racemosa plants in my backyard.

Disappointing that the gorgeous red berries aren't safe but the reading about the plant yielded surprising information. The reading I've done tells me that sambucus racemosa is a northern North American plant and I'm on a small mountain in Alabama. A botanist friend of mine confirmed the identification as sambucus racemosa from a pic.

I don't plan to do anything with them, but I guess I should determine if they're endangered at some point, for my information.

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