ELDERBERRY- THE CARETAKER
Rambunctious, energetic, and never offended, elderberries are powerful allies to wildlife, foragers, medicine makers, and gardeners. Elder plants have been used for millennia by people. The uses of elder are as varied and unique as the people who use them.
In general, they are extremely vigorous shrubs growing in thickets, roadsides, wetlands, and forest edges and openings.
They are shade tolerant, but love the sun.
Sambucus Canadensis, the American elderberry is the species I am most familiar with. It is closely related to the European species, sambucus nigra. The two are so closely related that many botanists consider them the same species. In reality, they are different enough from each other that S. Canadensis will thrive here in NYS, while most cultivars of S. nigra will languish.
There are other species of elderberry. S. caerulea is from the western U.S. and makes a large tasty blue berry. S. racemosa, native to the eastern woodlands makes a toxic bridght red berry.
S. Canadensis grows abundantly here in the northeast and across most of eastern north America. It is a vigorous plant, producing copious amounts of shoots, leaves, and berries. The dark tiny berries form in large clusters, ripening towards the end of the summer.
Healthy, Productive Stems
One year old shoots from well established plants can sometimes reach 8 feet tall in a single season. Many plants will produce flowers and fruit on new wood that is only a few months old. That is totally amazing to me, a stem rising out of the ground in the spring and winding up taller than me and covered in fruit by the end of the summer. How can a stem be that vigorous and productive?
As stems grow older, they begin to decline. After 5 or 6 years, elderberry stems will start to die. If they are not replaced by new shoots, then the whole bush can go into decline. Wild elderberry bushes rarely live past 20 years of age, but with human help they can live for much longer.
The reason elderberries can live longer with people is because we can cut them down. This may sound counter-intuitive, but that is what shrubs really need. Most shrubs have evolved to grow in open areas with abundant grazing and browsing animals. They are rejuvenated by the disturbance of a large herd of herbivores or by fire. When old stems die, there is new room for young shoots.
I cut most of my elderberry plants right to the ground every year or every other year. The timing is important. I cut them in the winter when they are dormant and most of their energy is stored in their root systems. In the spring, the plants flush an abundance of vigorous canes. These canes will reach 8 or more feet tall over the summer and produce copious amounts of flowers and fruit.
Its important to note that some individuals will not flower on first year wood. Second year canes are generally the most productive.
For individuals that do not flower on first year wood, I prune out any stems that are over 2 or 3 years old.
Elderberry stems have a soft pith in their centers. They have weak, brittle wood surrounding the pith, which is similar in texture to Styrofoam. This pith can be punched out with a thin round file or a nail. Taking out the pith will leave you with a hollow stem which has multiple uses. I have seen friends turn them into flutes, my wife has made crayons, and I have used them as maple spiles.
Apparently, the wood of elderberry is poisonous when fresh. So, if you are going to use elder stems for flutes or maple spiles, let it dry before using. I’ve never heard of anyone having any negative effects from using elder wood for these projects, and I’ve personally drunk a lot of maple sap collected from elder stems.
The flowers of elderberry come in great big white clusters starting in early July and sometimes continuing much later into the summer. By blooming late, elderberries reliably miss typical spring frosts that damage plants like apples, peaches, and plums.
The flowers are a magnet for pollinating insects. There is a huge flurry of activity around the blooms.
They are also edible and medicinal. Elder flowers are eaten as fritters, and they are tinctured and/or dried to make a powerful immune boosting medicine.
Elderberries are tiny, dark berries with a unique flavor. I don’t think of them as a berry to go out and stuff handfuls of into my mouth. They are not sweet at all. They have a pretty strong wine like flavor. Elderberries are best not eaten fresh, but processed into one of many possibilities.
They are more medicine than food in my opinion, but can certainly be used for both. Many folks bake elderberries into pies, make jam, wine, syrup, etc. We often add frozen elderberries to smoothies or oatmeal.
The real attribute of the elderberry lies in its powerful immune boosting quality. Elder syrup taken regularly at the onset of a cold has kept me healthy numerous times. Some people may regard this as folklore, but I know that its real and so does the exploding elderberry industry (which is expected to soon surpass Echinacea in herbal supplement sales).
I have heard people bemoan the tediousness of picking elderberries. This is too bad, it is just based on a lack of information. Elderberries come in great big clusters that are easily snapped off the bush. The berries are attached to thin stems in these clusters. To de-stem the berries, place the cluster in the freezer for 20 minutes or so. Tap the frozen cluster on a cookie sheet and all the berries will fall off easily. You can then put them in a bag and keep them in the freezer until you are ready to use them.
I use to live on a property where the owners regularly mowed down a huge patch of elderberry. Every time the plants would really get going and begin to flower, they would knock it all down with a brush hog. I felt so frustrated at this, that I decided to dig up and save some of the patch even though I had nowhere to plant it. In the middle of summer on a hot day, I dug up a clump and tried to stuff it into a pot. It was too big for any pot, so I cut it into sections with an old axe and stuffed each section into a pot. Amazingly, they all lived. I planted them a year later on my own property where they continue to thrive today, 8 years later.
Propagating elderberries is very easy and rewarding. There are numerous methods, ranging from cuttings, root divisions, and seed. I have the most experience with cuttings. I have used both hardwood (dormant cuttings) and softwood (summer) cuttings. Both methods have worked very well. I like to gather hardwood cuttings late in the fall and plant them out into nursery beds. Each cutting is only as long as the section between leaf nodes. I prepare the cutting so that it has a node on top. No node is needed on the bottom. I don’t use any rooting hormone on elder cuttings and usually have 90-100% success rate with hardwood cuttings and only slightly less with softwood.
Elderberries are very sensitive to being transplanted after they root if you do not wait until they are dormant. Once dormant, they are easy to transplant. If in full leaf, they wilt easily and die. To prevent this, cut back at least 90% of the leaf matter. This will prevent wilting and they will have a much higher success rate.
I have also grown elderberries from root cuttings. One inch fragments of root planted at or just below the soil line in early spring can lead to enormous 6 foot plants in a single season. However, I have noticed that if I take root cuttings later in the season, that they rarely sprout above the soil line at all.
I have not grown elderberries from seed, but have heard from a friend that with stratification, it is easy. I will update this article after I do grow a batch from seed one day.
Elderberries are not fussy about a planting site, but they will respond to favorable conditions with extreme generosity. Many people think that elderberries love wet soil and mistakenly plant them in muddy, anaerobic conditions. They can survive in places like that, but they will rarely thrive. Give elderberries a rich, well drained soil and they will explode with growth and flower right away.
Some individual elderberries are self pollinating, but many are not. If you are planting seedlings or varieties that need a pollinator, then a 6 foot spacing works out well.
Elderberries are shade tolerant, and can do quite well in half a day of sunlight or in dappled shade. However, they will respond to abundant sunlight, the way they do to good soil, with excellent growth.
There is a world market for elderberry products, primarily syrup and tincture, but also for dried berries and wine. Elderberries are consumed widely in Europe and increasingly in North America. The University of Missouri is leading the way in commercial elderberry research as numerous elderberry farms continue to spring up throughout the country. The potential exists for anyone with motivation to make an income from growing elderberry. The plants are vigorous and easy to grow with no significant pests and very high, reliable yields.
Elderberries are loved by song birds and game birds, but are often so productive that it is not hard for people to harvest them at the same time. I’ve never lost a crop of elderberries to birds the way I do with blueberries or serviceberries some years. Elder flowers are an excellent source of nectar for pollinators. The leaves are loved by deer (probably too much). Deer browse elderberry so heavily that local populations of the plant are in decline here.
The elderberry is a sacred plant to many people. They say that elderberries watch over children. My kids love to be around the robust elderberry bushes on our farm. They play under the shade of the plants, gather berries, and make crafts with the unusual stems. Elderberries are loved by birds, kids, tree huggers, foragers, native plant enthusiasts, permaculturists, right wingers, and left wingers. Every farm, homestead, and park would do well to have an elder patch somewhere to watch over us all.