Monday, September 10, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Elderberry

Elderberries should be in every Forest Garden
American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Common Name: Elder, Elderberry
Scientific Name: Sambucus species
Family: Adoxaceae (the Elders and Viburnum Family)
Common Species:
  • American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, sometimes named Sambucus nigra subspecies canadensis)
  • Common/European Elder (Sambucus nigra)
  • American Red Elder (Sambucus pubens)
  • European Red Elder (Sambucus racemosa)
Elderberry flowers are often valued more than the fruit!
American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
The Elderberry is a large shrub that is best known for its showy flowers (often made into fritters) and small but abundant, edible, dark blue-purple berries. However, it is also a fantastic attractor of beneficial insects and hummingbirds, can be used as a windbreak or living fence, provides food and shelter for wildlife (especially birds), and is a great pioneer species.
The American Elderberry is native to eastern North America from Canada south through to Panama in Central America. The European Elder is common in cooler areas of the European continent. It was used by native peoples in all places for food, drink, and medicine. Many cultivars have been developed but mainly for ornamental purposes and not flower or fruit production.

The Red Elder/Elderberry species are named for their berry color
Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
  • There are between 5 and 30 species of Elder depending on how "species" is defined
  • There are "black-berried", "red-berried", "Australian", and "dwarf" groups of Elder species as well as a few others that don't really fall into these groups
  • The Red Elder/Elderberry species, of which there are many, produce red berries
Primary Uses:
  • Edible fruit – cooked (most common), fresh (some don’t like the taste), dried, or used in preserves/jams/jellies, etc.
  • Edible Flowers – fresh or cooked. Popular when covered in batter and fried into fritters. Can be pickled if picked when unopened. Fresh flowers can be soaked in water to make a refreshing drink.
  • Tea Plant (dried flowers are used)

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Wildlife food plant, especially birds
  • Nectar source for hummingbirds
  • Shelter plant for small mammals and birds
  • Windbreak species
  • Living Fence species
  • Larger varieties can be coppiced
  • Pioneer Species
  • Fruit and flowers can be used for wine or flavor adjuncts in beer, liquors, and cordials
  • Medicinal Uses. There are many reported, but its use as an antiviral has a lot of scientific support in the medical literature.

Yield: 12-15 lbs (5.5-7 kg) per plant, but often less
Harvesting: Flowers - pick on sunny days when shedding pollen. Fruit - harvest in Late Summer (August-September) when in full color. Many people will either use a berry picker/comb or snip off whole heads and pick off at home.
Storage: Use or process fresh as flowers and fruit do not last long

Larger varieties and species can be used as a Canopy or Sub-Canopy Layer
Common/European Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-10
AHS Heat Zone: 8-1
Chill Requirement: Likely, but no good information is available

Plant Type: Small Tree or Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Layer for small Forest Garden, Sub-Canopy (Understory) Layer, Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Multiple varieties available

Pollination: Requires cross-pollination with at least one other variety/cultivar
Flowering: Late Spring through Summer (May-July)

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 2-4 years,
Years to Maximum Bearing: 3-6 years
Years of Useful Life: No good information available, but this plant freely suckers. As one plant is starting to decline, a suckering plant can be established to take the original plant’s place in the garden and in production.

The leaves and flower buds of the Elder.
Common/European Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
  • American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) - 6-13 feet (1.8-3.5 meters) tall and wide
  • Common/European Elder (Sambucus nigra) - 13-20 feet (4-6 meters) tall and wide
  • Red Elder (Sambucus racemosa) - 10 feet (3 meters) tall and wide
Roots: Fibrous with the ability to sucker (send up shoots from underground roots)
Growth Rate: Fast
Elder flowers can be eaten fresh, cooked, or used as flavorings in drinks
Common/European Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

Light: Full to partial sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Can grow in wet to dry soils
pH: prefers fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.5), but can tolerate more alkaline soils
Propagation: Usually from seed (germination highest with cold stratification, up to 39 weeks). Can be propagated from cuttings of half-ripe wood in Summer or mature wood in Autumn. Can divide suckers in late Autumn and Winter when the plant is dormant, but don't take too late in Winter as Elderberry leafs early.

Minimal, but will need to cut back suckers if not wanted.

Poisonous – Leaves, stems, roots, and immature fruit contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).

Whole sprays/heads, full of fruit, are often easier to harvest all at once.
American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)


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  2. This is a fantastic plant. The USDA plant guide says it can be used as browse: So I am wondering if the cyanide is only prevalent in the red elderberry. I know that one must be cooked before eaten. The darker variety can be eaten raw although I think it is a mild laxative if eaten in large amounts.

  3. I would like to know more about this also. I see the photo of the fritter contains the it can't be too bad. I put the small stems in when I make jelly and then strain them out. So far so good.
    I LOVE my elderberry bushes. :) I planted about 50 of them a few years ago. I would add chicken forage to their many uses. That's where my chickens hang out for a good month during the summer.

  4. Birds love them here in Denmark, and they spread the seeds efficiently, they are popping up everywhere in my garden.

  5. Don't forget the medicinal value of elder. The flowers are antibacterial, and toning to upper respiratory complaints, and can be used with other herbs in allergy mixes. The berries can be made into a delicious nourishing cough syrup.

  6. It says that it suckers from roots, does it have a tendency to run rampant?, as I'm looking to use it in a preschool garden. Temperate

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