Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
August, 2011
Regional Report

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Elderberries provide flowers, fruit, and beauty to the garden.

Mind Your Elders

Some plants just have it all: beautiful in the garden, easy to grow, edible flowers and fruit, and a long, fascinating history. The particular plant that I have in mind meeting these criteria is the elderberry. The European form is Sambucus nigra, with the North American native Sambucus canadensis differing very little. Both naturally grow in hedgerows and along the edges of woods, tolerating winter temperatures to -30 degrees F.

What Elderberries Bring to the Garden
Elderberries make a bold statement in the garden, forming multi-stemmed shrubs 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. The leaves, up to a foot long, have a somewhat feather-like appearance as they are composed of five to nine leaflets. The bark is rugged and rather corky. In June, large, flat-topped clusters of tiny, fragrant flowers adorn the plants and attract bees and butterflies to the garden. The flowers, in turn, produce clusters of shiny black berries in August and September, each about a quarter-inch in diameter and a favorite of at least fifty types of birds. If you can beat the birds to them, you'll harvest berries that are high in vitamin C and have a long history of being made in to jams, jellies, and wine.

Do be aware that the stems and leaves are poisonous for human and livestock, and the fruit should only be consumed after cooking.

Give Elderberries A Try
Elderberries readily grow in full sun to partial shade. Although they do best in fertile, moist, well-drained soil, they adapt to most conditions. Plants do sucker and slowly spread. To promote more compact growth and discourage legginess, cut the plants back hard in early spring. Elderberries are easy to propagate by simply taking a cutting, pushing it into the ground, and keeping the soil moist.

In Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, Fourth Edition: An Inventory of Nursery Catalogs and Websites Listing Fruit, Berry and Nut Varieties by Mail Order in the United States (Seed Savers Exchange, 2009, $24.00), there are 33 varieties of elderberries listed. Of the American species, the most readily available varieties are 'Adams', 'Johns', 'Nova', and 'York'. There are more distinctively ornamental forms of European elderberry, including variegated forms and one with purple-black leaves.

The Mystery, Magic, and Uses of Elderberries
There's an abundance of European and English folklore surrounding elderberries, some good, some bad. For instance, there is a Danish legend that a guardian spirit haunted anyone who cut an elder. They also believed that you could see the king of fairies if you stood beneath an elderberry on Midsummer's Eve. In England, elderberries were often planted near a home to provide protection from lightning and witches. It was believed that elderberry plants would only flourish near a house in which happy people lived. Elderberry branches, formed into a cross and nailed over doorways, were said to ward off evil influences. In Serbia, a piece of elder wood was carried at weddings for good luck.

Various parts of the elderberry plants were used by the ancient Romans, Britons, and Celts in medicines. John Evelyn (1620-1706), English gardener and writer, claimed that the juice of the berries was effective "against all infirmities whatever." The 19th century Bavarian nature healer Sebastian Kneipp recommended a preserve of elderberries "for winter use by those who take little exercise, and are condemned to a tranquil, sedentary life." Today, Sambucol, a black elderberry extract, has been shown in studies to shorten flu symptoms. A tea of elderflowers and peppermint was sometimes used for colds and flu as well. Ointments for bruises and sprains have sometimes included elder leaves, and elderflower water has been used in skin lotions.

The wood on older plants is hard and close-grained, lending itself in the past to being used for shoemaker's pegs, combs, skewers, mathematical instruments, and toys. The younger twigs once yielded whistles, popguns, musical pipes, and fishing floats. The leaves, berries, bark, and roots have been used for making dyes. The leaves also can serve as a deterrent for flies, fleas, and midges.

In the kitchen, the classic ways to use the flowers include making into fritters, sorbet, syrup, or a non-alcoholic "fizz." It's also popular to combine them with rhubarb or gooseberries for various desserts and jams. With the berries, the possibilities include a spice, sauce, wine, cordial, sorbet, jelly, or jam.

So as you evaluate your garden and consider what plants to add, consider including elderberries, not only for the beauty they'll bring to the garden but also the for their many other fascinating aspects.

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