Elderberry syrup and elderberry wine are yours for the making when you grow your own.
It ends up that this group of mostly edible plants is more complex that I realized.
I say mostly because red elderberries are toxic and should never be eaten. Blue and black elderberries are toxic when unripe, but safe and delicious when ripe or cooked. And the elderberries used to make medicinal syrup are only one type of elderberry.
That being said, edible elderberries are pretty amazing. Most of us have heard about elderberry jams, jellies, pies, syrup, and wine. Did you know you can also dip flower clusters in batter and deep fry them?
These plants were traditionally used by Native Americans and the Spanish for a lot more than just food, though. The cooked "sauco" was a summer staple that needed no sweetening. Hardwood stems were used to make arrows, flutes and whistles, blowguns, baskets, and fire starters, with the pith used as tinder and stems used as twirling sticks. The wood was also used to make combs, clappers, and pegs.
Elderberries are deciduous, flowering plants (angiosperms) that grow as shrubs. Now, we're not talking about tame, well-mannered shrubs here. Some species of elderberry, given the opportunity, can grow 20-30' tall and wide, in something of a fountain shape similar to currants. And they grow quickly. [Before you panic, know that most elderberry shrubs only grow 6-12' tall.] Glossy leaves are opposite. Cream or yellow flower clusters appear in spring, followed by purple berries in autumn.
Elderberries used to be thrown in with the honeysuckle family, but scientists have discovered that they are their own group (Adoxaceae). The elderberry family is also known as the moschatel family. [If that name is new to you, you are not alone!] In the world of elderberries, it ends up names can get very confusing.
To begin, all elderberries are members of the Sambucus genus. Beyond that, there are several species worldwide, with three major elderberry species found in the U.S. Each of these species has different characteristics.
American black elderberries
American black elderberries (Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis) are native to North America east of the Rockies and they prefer cool, moist conditions, often growing naturally alongside creeks and in low lying areas.
European black elderberries
European black elderberries (Sambucus nigra spp. nigra) are found throughout Europe. These plants are not as cold tolerant as the American blacks, but more so than the blues. And it is European black elderberries that are made into medicinal syrups.
Mexican blue elderberries
Until very recently, I didn't even know there were blue elderberries. Now I get to try my hand at growing my own because a reader dropped off a big cutting yesterday! [Thank you, C.P.!]
Blue elderberries (Sambucus mexicana) are native to North America west of the Rockies and they go by a variety of names, both common and scientific. Blue elder, sweet or wild elder, Arizona elderberry, and blueberry elder are just a few of the common names. If you talk with botanists, they have another whole collection of names, but we won't get into that. Bottom line, blue elderberries prefer hotter, drier conditions than the other two. These California natives have deep roots that go in search of water. Blue elderberries also have a longer harvest season, producing fruit all summer in most cases.
Elderberries and biodiversity
Healthy environments are diverse, with lots of different things living and growing and interacting with each other. It ends up that elderberries are an extremely important food source for many native birds, including western bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and ruby-crowned kinglets. Elderberry flowers also attract a number of moths, some of which you may not want near your garden. Maybe the birds will eat them, too.
Elderberry plants produce knob-shaped, nectar-producing glands, called extrafloral nectaries, on leaves and stems. These sugar stations attract beneficial insects. This is why elderberries are often included in butterfly gardens, bee gardens, and insectaries. Insectaries can be plants or plantings that attract beneficial insects.
How to grow elderberries
Elderberries can grow in full sun, partial sun, or full shade, depending on the variety. Once established, they need very little water, maybe once a month in summer. They can also grow in areas that stay moist, but they do need medium to fast drainage. These plants can tolerate temperatures as low as 5°F, but they prefer heat.
Elderberries are best grown from seed that have been planted right away, in autumn, or separated from the fruit, dried, and then warm stratified for spring planting. If you are lucky enough to receive cuttings like I was, follow these steps:
Once established elderberry plants can be coppiced. Coppicing refers to periodically cutting trees or shrubs back to ground level to stimulate new growth for firewood, basket weaving, or other building materials, as well as fruit.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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