Growing and Using Elderberry

Growing and Using Elderberry
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elderberryElderberry (Sambucus canadensis; American Elder) has a rich history in herbal lore. It was believed to be magical, and even rumored to be home to the Elder-Mother who protected it from damage. There are many other tales about European elder that involve the calming of babies, the ability to see fairies and to divine the future. However, the elderberry doesn't need magical characteristics to prove its worth. It's flowers are pretty, the berries are nutritious, it's fragrant and it benefits wildlife.

I have seen references to elderberry as a "high maintenance" shrub. Granted, it does take some care to assure it doesn't take over your property, but it's worth it. The clusters of tiny white flowers have a sweet fragrance. The clusters can grow to measure 8 or more inches across and often cover the entire shrub! The blossoms are often used to make fritters, tea and other beverages. The berries that form after flowering are very nutritious and have been used for centuries to make wine, pies, jams, and jellies.

It's important to choose the location of elderberry very carefully. There are many varieties available from garden centers that will vary in different ways. They all require a moist soil in full sun or very light shade. Some varieties are hardy to Zone 3. The shrubs aren't really picky about the soil itself as long as it's on the moist side. Elderberry can get out of control if measures aren't taken to prune it. It isn't the type of shrub for formal, neat areas. It can be cut back in the spring to keep it pruned. Volunteer seedlings should also be dug up and any sucker plants growing from the elderberry removed. If you'd like, the suckers can be given away or transplanted. Elderberry is suited well for naturalized spots, wetland areas, or as a privacy screen. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, quails, mourning doves, mockingbirds and many other birds love elderberries.

Elderberry flowers and ripe berries are edible, but all other parts of the plant are toxic. Even the berries have small amounts of toxic alkaloids. Cooking destroys these and changes the taste as well for the better. Cooked elderberries can be made into pies, jellies, wine and other desserts. As mentioned, flowers are edible and can be used as well.

A few warnings: The elderberry has clusters of dark berries. Be SURE of what you are harvesting before eating if you find them in the wild. There are shrubs that look similar but all parts are poisonous. One, the Scarlet Elder, has red berries, and another type of shrub has black berries that are on thorny wood. Elderberries do not have thorns. Any of these varieties should NOT be handled by children for any reason. When pruning, don't burn the cuttings.

Despite these warnings, elderberry is an heirloom herb that is worthy of growing in your landscape. I was fortunate to find elderberry shrubs in a scrub area of the property we bought last summer and can't wait till summer when it blooms.

The following is a simple recipe for jelly:

Elderberry Jelly

Mother Earth News July/August 1973


3 pounds elderberries
juice of 1 lemon
1 box fruit pectin
4 1/2 cups sugar

Heat the berries over a low fire until the juice starts to flow and then simmer the fruit for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth (easier if you cook the fruit in the evening and let it drain overnight). Mix the elderberry and lemon juices along with just enough water to make three cups of fluid. Add the pectin, bring the mixture to a boil and stir in the sugar. Bring the jelly to a full boil again for one minute, pour it into sterilized glasses and cover the jars with paraffin.


I have been making elderberry jelly for many years and I thought I might share another way of making the jelly. I also grow grapes for jelly. This helps me to get my juice, but you can buy it at the store. I get a large pan of elderberries and cook them on low for about a ten minute simmer. Then I put them in a cheesecloth bag to set overnight. When I go to make jelly, I use 3 cups elderberry juice and 1 cup grape juice. It's a fantastic combination with a great taste. I found substituting the lemon juice with grape juice is better. I get a lot of great comments on my jelly. ~Darlene

I harvest my elderberries in the wild and dry them for teas. I also throw some in my oatmeal as it is cooking, yum! The flowers I soak in olive oil for a wonderfully skin enriching and soothing salve. I use a dehydrator. They take a while to dry and first go into a very plump and juicy stage in the dehydrator. I made the mistake once of trying to grab a few to eat and they squirted all over. I think that the oven would be too hot and you'd lose nutrition. I make a nice tea with dried elder and peppermint when I or someone I know is just coming down with a cold, sore throat, virus and it seems to do a lot of good. ~Suzanne of Cedar Mountain Herb School


I would like to know how to get elderberries to grow? I get them from someone else and they said that theirs just started growing. I have the seeds from the ones I got off them, but I don't know where or when I should plant them, or if they have to be started indoors like tomato plants from seeds? ~Darlene

The common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), is usually grown from nursery stock if it doesn't grow wild near you. It should be planted in the spring, about 8-10 foot apart. Keep young plants well-watered. They can be propagated from root cuttings, softwood or hardwood cuttings in the spring too. Set the cuttings in soil, with only the very top buds on the branch sticking out. Keep them moist until they root.


Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons License from photographer - JustTooLazy


About The Author

Brenda Hyde is a freelance writer living on ten acres in rural Michigan with her husband and three kids. She is a mom, grandma, gardener, cook and writer. She blogs on all of these topics at


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