Sanctuary Spotlight: How to Grow Elderberry

Black Elderberry fruit via publicphoto.org SG

Normally, when I spotlight a fruit or vegetable, it’s one I have grown. Today’s spotlight is a little different in that I have not grown this wonderful fruit – yet. However, I just ordered two shrubs from Jung Seed (along with my new batch of raspberry canes to replace the ones I lost to disease last year). I’m very excited about growing these fruits as they are extremely nutritious and are used in medicinal treatments. Of course, in preparation for the arrival of my order, I did quite a bit of research on how to plant them, grow them, and harvest them. I figured, why not share the information with you now and give you time to order and plant elderberry shrubs for yourself?

GENERAL INFORMATION:

There are many species of elderberry (technically called “elder”), but this article will discuss the non-toxic variety, Sambucus nigra, or black elderberry. (The red berry varieties are toxic, containing a high percentage of a cyanide-inducing glycoside, and should not be eaten!) Black elder is native to North America (Sambucus nigra spp canadensis) but can also be found in the wild in the temperate to subtropical areas of Europe. It belongs to the Adoxaceae family.

The name elder is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “Aeld,” meaning fire. Elder is a bushy shrub that grows an average of 10-12 feet tall in the wild (larger in some instances). Cultivated varieties (like I purchased) grow 6-12 feet tall, depending on the cultivar. The plant produces 8-10 inch clusters of fragrant, white or cream flowers in the late spring. These flowers then become giant clusters of small black or bluish-black berries in late summer.

As old as this plant is, elder is not without its own folklore and superstition. It is said that the “elder tree” wards off evil spirits and protects the household from witches. (Interestingly enough, some superstitions state that witches like to congregate under the branches, especially when the tree is in full fruit.) According to folklore, don’t burn elder branches, else it will bring bad luck. And don’t cut elder shrubs without saying a special rhyme or the spirit called “Elder Mother” will be released and take revenge. (You may find it interesting to know that the “Elder Wand” in the Harry Potter books was made of an elder branch.)

Elder has been used in various ways throughout history. For example: the branches were used to make arrows and flutes, while the leaves were used as a poultice for wounds or as an insect repellent. Farmers put branches with slightly bruised elder leaves in their horses’ collars to ward off flies, while the leaves in their own hats would ward off mosquitoes. Elder berries have been used medicinally for hundreds of years; modern research has found that elderberries have a measurable effect on treating the flu, alleviating allergies, and improving respiratory health. The Chinese dissolve elderberries in wine as a treatment for rheumatism and traumatic injury.

Elderberries are very nutritious. They contain more phosphorus and potassium than any other temperate fruit crop. They’re also extremely high in Vitamin C. Based on the recommended daily allowance percentages, one cup of elderberries contains (among other nutrients): 87% Vitamin C, 17% each of Vitamin B6 & Vitamin A, 13% iron, 12% calcium, and 6% each of phosphorus and calcium.

PLANTING ELDERBERRY:

Elder can be grown in Zones 4-8, and likes well-draining, slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-6.5) that is high in organic matter. Plant your shrubs in the spring in an area that gets full sun to part sun. You must have a minimum of two cultivars in order to achieve pollination. Because of this, plant your shrubs about six to ten feet apart (or according to the directions from your nursery).

Elder shrubs have very shallow roots, so be sure to maintain constant soil moisture. Watering between rain storms and mulching will help. Be sure to keep the area weeded, but be careful not to disturb the elder’s shallow root system.

Fertilize your elder annually with an application of compost and a basic 10-10-10 fertilizer at a half-pound for each year of the plant’s age up to a maximum of 4 pounds per plant. The plant will produce fruit when it is two to three years old.

The elder bush will eventually need to be pruned. Suckers will grow from the bottom of the bush and produce side branches (laterals) that will fruit heavily in the second and third year. However, fruit production tapers off after the third year. After the first couple of seasons (during which you do not prune), prune branches that are more than three years old during late winter or very early spring while the plant is dormant. Try to leave an equal number of branches that are one, two, and three years old. This will ensure a healthy production of fruit. While pruning, also remove any dead or diseased branches.

The only pest that attacks elder bushes is the cane borer. As they like to infect older branches, good pruning should minimize the chances of an infestation.

Elder flower

Elder flower

HARVESTING ELDERBERRY:

Depending on the cultivar, elderberries ripen in August to September. Allow them to ripen on the shrub until they are dark purple or black. (Do not eat unripe elderberries as they can make you sick.) When harvesting, cut off the entire cluster of berries, then pull the berries off the twigs. Be sure to remove all twigs as they can be toxic.

Keep elderberries refrigerated and process as soon as possible. They do not last very long after harvesting. They can be dehydrated, frozen, or made into jams and jellies. Uncooked berries are more bitter, and eating them can cause nausea.

A mature plant of at least three to four years old will generally produce 12-15 pounds of berries a season!

As a note, birds love elderberries; so you may need to place a net over your bushes to protect your harvest.

FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN:

Believe it or not, there are dozens of ways to eat – and drink – your bountiful harvest of elderberries. There’s elderberry wine, liqueur, sorbet, ice cream, pie, jam, jelly, syrup, tarts, etc. Because I haven’t grown elder or cooked with elderberries yet, I scoured the web for some recipes for you (and me) to try. As soon as I get my first harvest, I’ll be coming up with my own recipes, which I will share with you.

Elderberry Pie

Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry Jelly

I’m looking forward to planting my two elder bushes when they arrive ~ hopefully, this weekend. I’ll be planting my raspberry canes at the same time. Hmm…I wonder what elderberry & raspberry together would taste like?? My mouth is watering already!

Do you have a favorite elderberry recipe? Please share it with us in the comment section below.

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