An Introduction to One of The World’s Most Popular Natural Remedies: The Elderberry
From its sprawling habit to its bright clusters of cream-colored flowers to the blue-black berries that weigh down its branches, Elderberry is a beautiful plant to come across in the wild. Most often, we find it on streambanks, making use of the dappled light of a forest understory. Its presence in more cleared areas and the vestiges of homesteads long gone prove that this plant has been co-evolving with humans for quite some time. Now, Elderberry is widely available as a domesticated plant – and it’s not hard to see why. Its uses for food, medicine, animal habitat, and wildcrafting are as wide and branching as the plant itself.
American Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, and European Elderberry, Sambucus nigra, are so closely related that, in fact, the canadensis is actually a subspecies of the nigra. They are both widely adapted throughout North America, pop up again in parts of South America, and cross the Atlantic into Europe. (A third variety, Red-Berried Elder, Sambucus racemosa, also appears throughout much of North America, but its bright-red berries are considered highly toxic.)
A multi-stemmed perennial shrub, Elderberries average 6-10 feet tall, though some can reach as high as 15 feet (often in Southern climates). Their bright green leaves are pinnately compound, a set of smaller leaves connecting to a larger stem, and symmetrically opposite, resembling an Oregon Ash. Stems range grayish to dark brown, and are pithy inside. Elderberry’s flowers make it highly visible right around the Summer Solstice, as it is one of the last wild berries to bloom. These showy clusters of small, 5-petaled, cream-colored flowers range from 4-10 inches wide, and carry a polarizing fragrance. Its descriptions range from “sweet” to “musky” to downright “putrid.” Your nose will have to be the judge!
Peppercorn-sized berries will mature and ripen, from green to purple-black, over the course of six to eight weeks after pollination.
Elderberry’s Rich and Diverse History of Traditional Use
Its many given names, ‘Pipe Tree,’ ‘Nature’s Medicine Chest,’ and ‘The Healingest Tree on Earth,’ demonstrate the great ties humans have made with Elderberry. Even the word ‘elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld,’ meaning ‘fire.’ Its use and cultivation in parts of Europe go back to prehistoric times.
So much of our current plant knowledge can be attributed to the practices of American Indigenous Peoples, the relationships they’ve built over time, and their tradition of oral history. Elderberry is no exception. The Cahuilla Band of Indians of Southern California have harvested and tended Sambucus nigra for many hundreds of years, making use of several parts of the plant. Large Summer harvests of berries would be dehydrated for use well into the Winter, either cooked into sauces or eaten dried. The pithy stems are hollowed out and made into fire starters or musical instruments: flutes, whistles, and “clapper sticks.” Flowers provide great medicinal benefit in a fever-reducing tea. Elderberry twigs and fruit create a rich dark dye used in basketry. While documentation of Native use of these plants remains limited, it’s obvious to see the rich and interconnected role they continue to play.
Elderberry maintains a connection with modern foragers, wildcrafters, and those practicing folk and herbal medicine.
How to Propagate Elderberry
While they are often associated with streamsides, Elderberries are widely adaptable plants that can be easily domesticated if planted thoughtfully. They prefer partial to full Sun, and moist, fairly rich, and slightly acidic soils. Sandy soil can be augmented with well-aged compost upon planting and each Spring afterwards. Elderberries also need water early and often (One inch of water per week is a good rule of thumb, especially in the first year). Consider installing a simple drip irrigation system if rainfall is scant. Similar to other cane fruit, Elderberries can spread through underground rhizomes. Keep this in mind for future propagation, and as you choose your planting site.
Propagation & Planting
Elderberries can be grown from seed, cuttings, or seedlings.
Crush and dry fruits to separate the seeds from the pulp. Seeds can be planted in the Fall, right after you collect them or sown in the Spring. Elderberry’s long germination period makes it a good candidate for planting into 3-4” pots (at a depth of ¼”) for planting the following Spring. Take good care not to disturb the roots at planting time; they are very sensitive to disruption.
Use the hardwood cuttings from the previous year. These pieces should be at least ten inches long, and have two nodes. You can submerge them four inches deep in water with a rooting medium, or put them directly in a pot. Pot up cuttings in a 4” pot in a soft absorbent medium, such as perlite with peat moss, and be sure to keep them damp. Once well-rooted, carefully plant your cutting out in the Spring or Fall. Keep it well-watered, especially early.
Elderberry seedlings are widely available from native plant nurseries. Plant a couple of inches deeper than the provided nursery pot.
Plant seedlings at least 4-5 feet apart. If you’re doing a larger planting, keep your rows or guilds about 10-12 feet apart to ensure adequate airflow.
How to Grow and Care for Elderberry
Elderberry’s shallow and sensitive root system benefits greatly from mulching with straw or leaves. This helps with moisture retention and suppresses the growth of grasses and other weeds that offer heavy competition for the plant as it establishes itself.
Take care to pull neighboring weeds gently, or to cut or mow them down at the surface. In its early years especially, Elderberry is sensitive to root disruption.
During its first two seasons, pruning Elderberry is not necessary or advised. Simply watch as your plants put on quick growth (6-12 feet in their first three years!). Elderberries send up new cane shoots each year. These canes often reach full height in their first year, and then branch out in their second. Most of the fruiting occurs on second-year canes that have good lateral growth. Best practice is each Spring to prune out your third year canes, as well as any that are dead, weak, or broken.
Thankfully, pest pressure isn’t a huge issue with Elderberries. The shrubs can play host to such insects as the elder shoot borer, the cecropia moth, and “elder mites.” These pests can largely be mitigated through good hygiene; clearing out dead or infested canes helps greatly. If that’s not enough, a spray of diluted neem oil (often mixed with castile soap as an emulsifier) is a good all-around defense against orchard bug pressure.
Come August, those purple-black berries do seem to be a calling card for all kinds of larger pests, including everyone from songbirds to bears to elk. Strategic timing and placement of netting and fence lines can do a lot to help; depending on the pressure of these pests, sometimes it’s prudent to just let them have the berries!
As with pest pressure, much of disease mitigation occurs in the early going: planting healthy plants in a site location that sets them up for success. Beyond that, good plant hygiene (pruning out old or weak stalks) helps the spread of disease and increases airflow. As we build the health of our soils and the diversity of our plantings, we definitely see that the health of individual plants improves right along with the overall ecosystem. This approach takes patience and a little bit of faith, but is really a central tenet of Permaculture. When in doubt, your best resource is often your local County Extension Agent. They are incredibly helpful, with information tailored to your region.
Harvesting Ripe Elderberry
Elderberry flowers are typically ready in June, and should be harvested at full bloom, before they have begun to close or brown. The clusters can either be cut from the plant or broken with a clean “snap” at the first leaf node below the cluster. Fresh flowers should be used quickly, or dried for later use.
Keep an eye out for berries (and all those who like to eat them) beginning in early August. Pick them, fully purple-black ripe, the same way you pick the flowers, as full clusters. Individual berries can be removed from the larger cluster by raking them with your fingertips.
Fresh berries should be used immediately, or frozen, refrigerated, or dehydrated for later use.
First things first, do not consume raw elderberries!
Raw elderberries contain toxic alkaloids that, at the least, will cause nausea. In fact, many parts of the plant – including the leaves, roots and stems – are toxic. (Note that the flowers, in any form, are perfectly fine to consume.) It’s always good to have a healthy dose of awe, respect, and research for plants we’re still getting to know.
That said, cooking fully-ripe elderberries releases this toxin making them perfectly safe – and beneficial – to eat.
The berries, which are both sweet and earthy, can be cooked into jams, jellies, and pies, or made into wines and cordials. The medicinal uses of elderberries are extensive, and largely center around improved immune function. Elderberry Syrup can provide a boost of Vitamin C and immune system support.
The flowers are quite mild, and can be made into a tea to break a fever and bring on perspiration. Externally, that same tea, chilled, can be used as a skin toner and softener.
In exploring plants as medicine, it’s always wise to do so gradually, in small amounts, and in consultation with a medical professional.
For myriad reasons, Elderberry is a fantastic choice for a food forest. Widely adaptable, it provides beauty, habitat, form, and function to a permaculture landscape.