"Thousands of tons are wasted every year". That's what Euell Gibbons said in his field guide edition of "Stalking the Healthful Herbs" first published in 1970. He was referring to the wild elderberry. By "wasted" he meant it was unused, except, perhaps, by the birds. He saw it as a waste because it is a true native wild fruit that grows from coast to coast, is very easy to harvest, and is packed with calcium, Vitamins A, B and C, iron, phosphorus, and potassium.
There is good evidence that elderberries were cultivated in the Stone Age in Italy and Switzerland. The North American wild elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is so successful a member of the plant world that I suggest you join the 'grow your own food' movement and beautify you landscape at the same time. Its European counterpart, Sambucus nigra (of two million years ago), is equally successful, although quite a bit larger. It can grow to 30 feet as compared to our American native's 10 to 12 feet. Both can be cut back to reasonable levels for management and harvest with no ill effects.
Elderberries are one of the easiest plants to grow. They are virtually pest free and therefore will be organic in your landscape, as no sprays will be required. They are very hardy, and easy to grow and maintain. They provide flowers and fruit that offer intense aroma, flavor and color.
Today's cultivated varieties of elderberries are vigorous and productive. Their fruit is generally larger and sweeter that the wild native ones. If your interest is more about growing your own flowers and fruit, there are varieties that are recommended to max out those qualities. Even then, these plants are showy ornamentals that the birds love if the fruit is left on the plant.
They are also lovely shrubs that lend themselves to attractive use in your home and grounds landscape. There are cultivars that resemble very closely the color and texture of Japanese maples. One, Sambucus nigra 'Eva', a.k.a. "Black Lace" has thick and lacy purple-black foliage and massive pink flower clusters in late spring. Another, 'Gerda', a.k.a. "Black Beauty", boasts lacy, near black foliage with masses of pink lemon-scented flower clusters.
I'm writing this article now because the nurseries are opening and spring is the very best time to plant elderberries. Elderberries are so prolific that you will probably harvest flowers and fruit next year from plants put in the ground this year. Do a little research, see what cultivars your local nursery has, and if you want something in particular, ask them to get it for you. They will, if they value your patronage.
The elderberry plant is very versatile. Blooming in late June with large clusters of white or cream-colored flowers, it is a striking ornamental shrub. In September, the transformed blossoms become masses of purple-black plump fruit so heavy they bend the stems over with their weight.
The white-petaled flower clusters are also known as elderblow. Dried quickly after harvesting, these can be made into wine, herbal tea, added to pancakes, muffins, and custards. They can be dipped in a favorite batter and fried like fritters. They have been used for centuries in traditional folk medicine to treat colds, fever, and flu. The Egyptians used the flowers for improving the complexion and treating burns. There is much folklore that goes back centuries about using this plant and all its parts.
The fruit, once cooked, makes delicious wine, jam, pie, and syrup, even elderberry brandy for the very patient. The fruit and all green parts of the plant harbor a mild cyanide toxicity that is destroyed in cooking. The beautiful color has also been used as a fabric dye, coloring and flavoring agent for other foods including ice creams and desserts.
As you know, I'm fond of encouraging readers to try something new or different. Elderberries would be one to consider. They are not very expensive, are very easy to grow, are nearly pest free, and numerous cultivars are available that will satisfy even the most jaded gardener. Flowering after many other fruits, they are almost never bothered by frost.
They are strong and vigorous growers, and their fruit clusters are large and productive. The best cultivars to explore are Adams No.1, Adams No. 2, York, Johns, Kent, Nova, Scotia, and N.Y. 21. Don't overlook the highly ornamental ones like the two mentioned above. They will pollinate one another just fine. Remember, elderberry plants are generally not self-fruitful. Two plants are required to provide dependable crops.
Elderberries tolerate a wide range of soil types in the slightly acidic range between pH 5.5 to 6.5. Moist, fertile, well-drained soil is best, but humus, compost, aged manure or organic matter can be added to sandy or loamy soil. Constantly wet spots should be avoided. These plants really aren't very fussy, but grow best in bright light to full sun.
Spring is the ideal time to plant them. The abundant rainfall is one of the reasons. They are shallow rooted and must not be allowed to dry out the first year. In the absence of rainfall, water deeply once a week. Mulching helps conserve moisture and inhibits weeds.
Place plants an average of six to ten feet apart, if you are seriously going for fruit instead of ornamental value. If you just wish to try a few for mixed fruit and ornamental values, spacing will not be an issue.
After the first year in the ground, spring fertilization with ammonium nitrate and superphosphate in moderate amounts will earn a favorable result.
Remembering that elderberries are shallow rooted will remind one that weeding should best be accomplished by hand pulling. Avoid disturbing the roots by any but the lightest cultivation, never deeper than two inches. Mulches might be the best option to prevent damage to new upright shoots.
Each year elderberry plants send up multiple canes that attain maximum height in a single season. The following season these canes begin to develop lateral branches. It is these two-year-old canes that are most fruitful. Most plants sold are a year or two when put into the ground.
Canes four year old and older become weak and brittle and should be pruned out while plants are dormant, usually late winter or early spring. The remaining one, two and three-year-old canes will provide a wonderful plant and plentiful flowers and fruit, whether planted for fruit or ornament.
The fruit matures from late August into early October depending on the cultivar. Collect the fruit when fully ripe before the birds find them. Remove the entire clusters of fruit and then remove the berries from the clusters. Use the fresh fruit as soon as possible or refrigerate if a delay is necessary.
You might also dry the fruit.
Some of you might think removing the fruit will be tedious. The fruit come off the clusters very easily. A great hint from an old Mother Earth News column states, "Simply put a small piece of 1/2 inch mesh hardware cloth over a bucket or large bowl and rub the berry bunches across the screen. The fruit will come off cleaner (and with less bruising) than if you'd picked them all by hand!"
Grow some very healthful organic fruit, and beautify your homestead at the same time.
From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on April 18, 2007
© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.