Elderberry: An Attractive Native Shrub That Heals
Our native elderberry, American elder, Sambucus canadensis, is an attractive, relatively large shrub, whose flowers and berries can be made into an array of medicinal, food, and beverage products. Along with its relative, European Elder, Sambucus nigra, elderberry is enjoying a revival of sorts as a medicinal herb although its healing properties were noted by Hippocrates as early as 400 BC.
My first encounter with elderberries was with wild bushes growing on the shoreline of the pond where I fished growing up. On late summer mornings, after fishing since sunup, we would pick a few handfuls of the purple berries for mid-morning replenishment before returning to the task of catching our dinner. The berries’ somewhat bitter taste and astringency was no deterrent to hungry boys. There were many days when we were more successful picking elderberries than catching fish.
While there are a few cultivars worth considering, the native Sambucus canadensis is a shrub with a cane habit that can grow to be anywhere from 4 to 15 feet tall and of equal width. It is native to eastern North America from Nova Scotia to Manitoba and Florida to Texas.
Leaves are pinnately compound, with 5 to 11 leaflets per stem, each averaging about 5 inches long. Edges are finely serrated. Clusters of small white flowers, called cymes, are typically 3 to 10 inches in diameter.
Elderberries prefer well-drained soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Roots tend to be fibrous and shallow. The shrub reaches full berry production in the third or fourth year, and canes become productive in their second year. They prefer sun but will adapt to part shade and are hardy in zones 3-10.
Elderberries are cross pollinators so at least two varieties within 50 or 60 feet of each other are required for pollination. Flowering and fruiting typically occurs in late August to early September, with exact timing varying a couple of weeks in each direction for different cultivars.
It is a good idea to add a nitrogen-based fertilizer to the root perimeter yearly to support growth.
Two-year-old canes are the most productive. Flower clusters form on terminal ends of current season growth. Careful pruning will increase production and help reduce pest threats. Remove dead, broken and weak canes as noticed. Canes lose vigor after 3 years and should be removed at ground level during dormancy. Leave a roughly equal number of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old canes intact.
To harvest, cut berry clusters from the plant, then strip berries. Use quickly or freeze to preserve.
Note that the Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa has bright red fruits that are poisonous to humans.
Most Common Disease and Pest Issues
Elderberries’ two most common disease issues are:
- Cankers: caused by various fungi, they form on twigs and branches. Treatment is to prune and burn affected wood.
- Leaf Spot: shrubs are susceptible to 4 forms of powdery mildew, which can be controlled using traditional techniques.
They also have minor susceptibility to thread blight, root rot, and verticillium wilt, but problems are typically manageable.
There are three insect pests that commonly attack elderberries. There are few registered insecticides for elderberries, so most control is cultural:
- Elder shoot borer: the larval stage of Achatodes zeae bores into stems and shoots. The moth lays eggs in July/August on 1-year-old canes for hatch the next April/May. The larva feed initially on leaves, and then bore into shoots. By mid-June, they tunnel into dead canes to pupate, as evidenced by sawdust (frass) on the ground beneath the bore hole. Best practice is to prune out dead wood, preferably before larval entry, and then destroy all prunings.
- Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia) caterpillars eat foliage. Hand remove them.
- Aphid infestations may cause leaf distortion but damage is usually manageable.
Elderberries have been used for a variety of medicinal purposes for centuries. While science-based proof of medicinal claims is not extensive, there is some evidence that elderberry syrups and lozenges are effective at shortening the duration of flu symptoms and severity of cold symptoms for air travelers. There is less proof but considerable belief that elderberry products reduce sinus and nerve pain, constipation, and other afflictions. The fruits are high in vitamin C and do appear to have a stimulating effect on human immune systems. Persons taking immune suppressants should probably avoid elderberry products.
Flowers, picked soon after opening, can be boiled, strained, and sweetened to make syrups, wine, and cordials. They can also be dried and used to make a tea.
Berries are used to make medicinal syrups as well as jellies, wines, and cordials.
While there are longstanding claims of health benefits from partaking of elderberry products, there is also a risk of diarrhea, vomiting and similar symptoms from overconsumption. Leaves, stems and roots can be poisonous to humans.
Where They Fit
Elderberry shrubs are attractive and versatile natives for borders and larger spaces, especially if the gardener enjoys processing grown produce into home remedies, food and drink. They are also a nice addition to properties working to add diversity for pollinators and birds where late summer/early fall flower and fruit availability is desirable. For those who are interested in adding elderberry but not sure, try some commercial syrup to ward off your next cold or strengthen your immune system. Your personal experience may help you decide.
Cover photo: Fruiting elderberry: Photo: Penn State Extension
Flowering elderberry: Photo: Penn State ExtensionCC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Elderberry clusters: “Elderberry and Blackberry Jam” by isapisa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
On the patio: “Foto 241” by siavogel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Red elderberry: “Alaska, zomer 2010” by Martha de Jong-Lantink is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Elderberry cordial: eam31 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0