By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz -
Summer is a time of abundance in the natural world. It doesn’t take much searching to find plants, trees and shrubs that are either flowering, setting fruit or going to seed. And all it takes to fill one’s winter larder with this abundance is a little walking and a keen eye. July is a particularly bountiful month in which one of my favorite wild edibles, the common elderberry, begins to set and ripen its delicious, nutritious and medicinal fruits.
Elderberries are pretty plants that can vary in size and fullness depending on growing conditions. In deep shade, plants might reach only 3’-5’ and appear quite lanky, while those growing in good soil with more sun might reach upwards of 10’ tall and 6’ in diameter. Elderberries are often found growing in small groups or colonies in everything from sandy loam, to gravel, to heavy clay. Look for them in moist forest clearings, field edges, and along streams and ditches. Wherever elderberries are growing in the wild, you can be sure there is a reliable source of subsurface moisture.
Elders and elderberries belong to the genus Sambucus, which includes 30 or more species of shrubs and small trees. Taxonomists tend to break these many species into four groups that consist of many species, but for general ease of reference, the edible and medicinal black-, blue- and purple-berried elder species are often grouped together under the Latin name Sambucus nigra L. ssp. Canadensis, and are generally referred to as Common Elderberry.
This group may include Southern Elder (S. australis), American Elder (S. canadensis), Blue Elder (S. cerulea), Chinese Elder (S. javanica), Black or Common Elderberry (S. nigra), Mexican Elder (S. mexicana), Florida Elder (S. simpsonii), and Velvet Elder (S. velutina). Among these, S. nigra is the species most often used for medicinal purposes. Only dark-fruited elderberries are safe to eat. The fruits of all red elderberry species should never be consumed in any form.
While the long straight upper stems of elderberry are quite brittle and are easily broken by hand, the lower stems are quite strong and in the past have been made into barrettes, combs, maple spiles, flutes, blowguns, pegs, spindles, arrow shafts, fire sticks and many other useful items.
During active growth the interior of green living stems contain a whitish pith that is said to make a good fire tinder. Keep in mind that all parts of the stems and leaves contain toxic alkaloids. To play it safe, elderberry wood should not be used to make objects that might find their way to the mouth, especially those of children.
Elderberries have pinnately compound (2 to 4 opposite leaflets and one unpaired terminal leaflet), ovate to lance shaped leaves with slightly serrated tooth margins and slightly hairy undersides . On hot summer days the leaves tend to cup slightly upwards. Beware of mistaking elderberry with the inedible Mountain Ash whose leaflets grow alternately along the stem.
And while humans should never consume the leaves and stems of elderberry, deer, bear, elk, and squirrels find them to be nutritious browse in spring and fall. The leaves are also considered to be decent fodder for domestic livestock such as goats, sheep and cattle, who find the fall foliage most desirable after the first heavy frost when other high nutrient forage is scarce.
In the wild, elderberry bushes are often overlooked until they begin to bloom, at which time they are distinguished by their large, flat-topped clusters of tiny cream to white, fragrant flowers consisting of five, flattened petals and five protruding stamens. Elderberries are excellent nectar sources for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.
Humans also find the sweet smelling blooms irresistible and one of the most popular ways to prepare elderberry flowers is to dip them in a light batter and fry them until crisp. Served with a bit of honey, elderberry flower fritters are a rare summertime treat in this neck of the woods.
Of course, elderberry flowers have many other uses. They can be used fresh in salads and fruity desserts. They can be candied or infused in wine, vinegar, or brandy. They can also be made into syrups and jams, or fermented along with pears to make a light, flowery-fruity wine.
When collecting the flower cymes, be sure to leave several on each plant where they will eventually produce berries for you, the birds, and a myriad of other life forms that rely on them for food.
Using elderberry in the landscape can help heal natural areas scarred from machinery or fire. As a deciduous shrub, elderberry makes a great privacy or dust screen from roads or along fence lines. Elderberry is also great wonderful plant to grow if you want to attract songbirds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife into your yard.
If you’re not the wild-forager type, you will be pleased to know that elderberry can easily be grown in the yard and garden. As a matter of fact, elderberry is quickly becoming a cash-crop here in the Ozarks and many new varieties of have been cultivated for consistent berry size, flavor, and production. Here in Missouri, many new cultivars are being trialed at the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri.
The flavor and sweetness of wild elderberries can vary from plant to plant, so tasting the berries before picking is always a good idea. Never eat red elderberries – or the leaves, stems and roots of any elderberry species – as these contain toxic alkaloids and cyanogenic glycoside which can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea.
During my research I came across claims that eating large quantities of the ripe, raw fruits of common elderberry may cause mild nausea, stomachache and diarrhea, so avoid eating a lot of fresh berries until more information can be found. The good news is that elderberries are better when cooked with a bit of sweetening anyway.
Basically, anything you can make with blueberries, you can make with elderberries as well. And like blueberries, research has confirmed that this tart fruit is among one of nature’s most nutritious, containing more vitamin C than any other fruit except for black currents. They are high in protein and contain healthful amounts of vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), calcium, iron and phosphorus.
Of the many wonderful foodstuffs that can be made with elderberries, such as pies, cakes, jams, preserves, relishes, compote, sauces, juice, syrup, toppings, elder raisins, and more, the most celebrated elderberry product has got to be elderberry wine.
If you’re interested in trying to make your own, a simple wine can be made using the same process as my easy recipe for blackberry wine (Blackberries & Homemade Wine). If you decide to make some for yourself, be sure and let me know!
In addition to being really tasty – the fruits have medicinal properties as well. The fruits are cherished in cough syrup and sore throat remedies and the extract of elderberry is a proven immunostimulant with antiviral and anti inflammatory properties. A 1995 study reported that extracts of elderberry fruits inhibited multiple strains of the influenza virus, including H1N1, while reducing severity and duration.
The flowers of elderberry have been used to make a mild medicinal tea used to treat diarrhea, fever, headache and conditions involving inflammation in the body. And for centuries infusions of elderberry flowers have been used to reduce the appearance of freckles and improve skin clarity. Dried flowers have been employed as a styptic to stop minor bleeding and the leaves, flowers and twigs are used as a poultice for minor wounds, burns, inflammation, and insect bites and stings.
With all of its wonderful qualities as an edible and medicinal plant for humans, a beneficial for wildlife and habitat restoration, it’s no wonder that the elderberry has been revered for as long as man has walked the earth.
Copyright Jill Henderson
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.
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