Mind Your Elder!

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra and Sambucus canadensis) have been grown for centuries by Europeans for both their rich flavor of the fruit and for their reputation to prevent and cure many illnesses.  They are gaining popularity in North America recently and are worth their weight in gold for their beautiful medicinal flowers and the unique taste of the fruit.

Elder flowers and berries are popular and effective remedies for colds, flu, fevers, and inflammation.  The berries are rich in vitamin A and C content, and play a role in the health of the immune and respiratory systems.  The berries also contain significant amounts of flavonoids and anthocyanin that are heart protective.


Elderberries like a sunny location with room to spread.  They thrive in a deeply amended soil with organic matter and moist soil conditions.  Set young plants 5 foot apart and 10 foot away from other plantings such as other fruiting trees.  Elderberry flowers are self-pollinating, but the plants are more productive if two or more cultivars are planted near each other.

General Care:

Apply a thick layer of organic mulch or compost to conserve moisture.  If plants aren’t growing well, apply an organic plant food containing nitrogen under the mulch.  Otherwise, fertilization usually isn’t needed when compost is used around the base each spring.  Be sure to water in dry seasons.

Pruning Elderberries:

Prune away any dead canes in the early spring and cut out all the old canes whenever bushes become crowded.  Vigorous elderberries produce an abundance of suckers, so keep plants neat by frequent clipping.  Some people will even mow around the base of elderberry bushes to keep them in their place.  Dig transplant suckers if you want new plants to share with a neighbor or friend.

Problems of Elderberries:

Generally speaking, elderberries are free from disease and insect pest, but birds love the fruit.  If birds aren’t to numerous and you have the space, plant extra bushes…. giving the birds a little to eat.  When berries are abundant, birds tend to tire of them after a few days and leave the ones that ripen later.  You can pick the berries a few days before they are ripe if birds are a problem, and set them in a warm room, where they will continue to ripen.

Winter Damage can be a problem some years.  The plant’s roots are very hardy, but extreme cold sometimes injures the canes.  Fortunately, the fruit forms on new growth, so even when damage is severe, it seldom affects the crop.  Since blooms don’t appear until summer, late spring frosts never seem to hurt them.  If you live in cold climates where fall frosts come early, plant early ripening cultivars to insure a crop.

Harvesting Flowers and/or Elderberries:

The tiny white clusters are not only beautiful, but delicious.  Pick them as soon as they open.  Flowers can be used to make oxymels for preventive cold and flu care or used as a tasty healthy tea.  Add a few clusters of flowers to a gallon glass jar filled with water and a bit of lemon juice and honey.  Set it in the sun for a day, then strain out the flowers.  Yum! And good for you!

Soon after blooming, the green fruits form and ripen to a rich dark color.   Pick the whole fruit cluster head and strip the berries later when you’re ready to use them.  Elderberries are best put into tarts, pies, pancakes and desserts or process the into jelly, juice or wine.  Too many raw elderberries can make ones tummy upset.

Elderberries are excellent made into cough syrup.  They are a great substitute for blueberries in many recipes.

Elder flowers can be dried for winter use and the berries can be frozen or dried, also for winter use.  I think every household should have elder flowers and berries on hand, especially in the winter months!

Elderberry Cultivars:

Cultivars that I have had the best success with in my zone 8 climate is ‘Nova”, and ‘York’ both  large-fruited, productive, and slightly later than some other varieties.  ‘Adams’ is an earlier ripening medium-sized berry.


Elderberry Syrup:

Fresh, frozen or dried berries can be used for this recipe.

3 cups water

1 cup fresh, frozen or dried elderberries

1-2 tablespoons finely chopped or grated fresh ginger

1/2 to 3/4 cup honey, depending on your taste

Combine the water, elderberries, and ginger in a saucepan, bring to boil over medium heat.  Simmer with lid ajar, 30-40 minutes.

Strain mixture, mashing the berries to get all the juice.

Stir in the honey and cook over low heat until syrup thickens.

Pour into a glass jar, cover tightly, and let cool.  Stop in the refrigerator up to 4 months.


Know your plants!  Sambucus racemosa, which is a toxic red berry rather than the edible deep blue/purple and is a lookalike cousin..  They are easy to tell apart when they are ripe, but more difficult when in flower.



1 Comment

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One response to “Mind Your Elder!

  1. We have our own native blue eldeberries, Sambucus caerulea and Sambucus mexicana. They work like black elderberries for us. They can get quite large, but are easily renovated simply by getting cut down and started over. I do not know how they compare to back elderberries because I have never seen black elderberries.

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