Sambucus, commonly known as the Elderberry, is a deciduous shrub that flourishes in temperate and subtropical regions. Here in the eastern United States, (Sambucus canadensis) American Elderberry, has long been a standard homestead shrub and was used extensively by American Indian tribes. It has also become a favorite shrub in permaculture design because of its many medicinal, food, and material uses; and because it is fairly easy to establish.
Plant Characteristics and Culture
Elderberry is a deciduous shrub that, depending on variety, can grow anywhere from 9 to 15 ft tall. Flowers are usually white and formed in large clusters. Leaves are pinnate with 5–9 leaflets, 10 cm long and 5 cm broad, and arranged in opposite pairs. Elderberries can be propagated from seed and cuttings. Seeds can be viable for up to 16 years.
Elderberry prefers moist, well-drained, sunny sites, but also can grow in dry soils. It is a dominant understory species in riparian woodlands. The shrub is known to do well in hedgerows. The elderberry is a nitrogen-loving plant that appreciates lots of organic material and compost. The best elderberry bush that we had was planted on the corner of the cow barn where the hay elevator was. All summer hay chaff would settle around the bush and rot down creating a deep, black soil full of organic matter. This was the most productive elderberry I’ve ever seen!
Elderberry has a long history in North America as a medicinal plant. It has been used for many things including improving heart health, and for treating coughs, colds, flu, bacterial and viral infections, and tonsillitis. Elderberry is very high in vitamin C, antioxidants, and has very high immune boosting properties. Flowers, leaves, and berries are used for medicine. Below are some resources for using elderberry for medicinal purposes…
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Elderberry as a Food
It is important to note that some varieties of elderberries, other than Sambucus canadensis, must be cooked. Raw berries of some of the Sambucus family are mildly poisonous. Sambucus nigra and Sambucus canadensis, which are closely related, can be eaten raw but they must be ripe berries. Unripened berries, twigs, and leaves contain cyanogenic glycoside and can make you sick.
With that said, elderberries are a source of great culinary delight. The berries can be used to make fruit pies, jellies, and jams. The flowers can be fried, a wonderful wine can be made from the berries, and you can even make elderberry mead. In Europe an elderberry brandy is made, as well as infused drinks and cordials. Below are links to trusted elderberry recipes…
Elderberry shrubs are fast growing and make an excellent “edible hedge”.
Indian tribes used elderberry twigs and fruit in creating dyes for basketry.
Elderberry branches can be used to make arrow shafts.
Flutes and whistles can be constructed by boring holes into stems.
The pith of the stem can be used as tinder for starting fires.
Hollowed out stems can be used as spiles (spouts) for tapping sugar maple trees.
It is a source of summer food for many songbirds including the indigo bunting, common house finch, red-shafted flicker, ash-throated flycatcher, black-headed grosbeak, scrub jay, Stellar jay, ruby-crowned kinglet, mockingbird, red-breasted nuthatch, Bullock’s oriole, hooded oriole, song sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, western tanager, California thrasher, russet-backed thrush, brown towhee, Audubon warbler, cedar waxwing, Lewis and Nuttall’s woodpecker, wren-tit, grouse, pheasant, and pigeons.
Deer, moose, and elk will browse elderberry shrubs and bears are very fond of the berries.
The elderberry is a very useful perennial shrub that can fit into many niches in permaculture systems. The elderberry can provide food for humans and wildlife, be grown as hedge or in diverse hedges, and has many material uses as well. Seedlings can be purchased at this link for a reasonable price.