If a plant should have multiple uses to justify itself, the elder is overqualified. Anna-Marie Barnes describes the uses of this hardy and robust plant that is easy to tuck into every hedgerow or shelterbelt – even if just for the insects and birds.
He who cultivates elderberry will die in his own bed.
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Plant an elderberry in your garden and you’ll receive delicate ornamental foliage, a multitude of fragrant flower clusters in spring, shade and shelter in summer, and a plentiful harvest of antioxidant-rich berries by early autumn, if not before.
These easy-care, vigorous shrubs come steeped in mysticism but their inky-black fruit also bring a healthy dose of useful nutrients and flavonoids to the table. Both the creamy-white flowers and the purple-black berries have been widely used over the ages to ease the symptoms of colds and flu. 17th-century English writer, gardener, and diarist, John Evelyn, professed that an extract of elderberries was “a catholicon against all infirmities whatever” – in other words, a cure-all.
Mick Jagger wasn’t so keen in the Rolling Stones’ 1974 hit ‘Till the Next Goodbye’, but these properties have been backed up by scientific research, with black elderberry juice shown to stimulate the immune response, helping shorten the duration and severity of symptoms associated with the influenza virus. The berries yield grey-blue to mauve shades when used to dye wool or cloth, if fibre arts are your buzz. A boon for insect and bird life, expect a biodiversity boost if you introduce an elder to your environment – just perhaps don’t plant one in flying distance of your washing line.
If you haven’t grown elders before, you have probably run into them as a beverage component – fizzy, florally-fragrant elderflower champagne or cordial is a popular summer tipple, particularly in Europe, and deephued elderberry wine is the favourite of many a home winemaker (and gets a mention in Elton John’s 1973 song of the same title). I spent a weekend as a university student gleaning rubbish sacks of elderberries from the hedgerows around Lincoln (they thrive in rural Canterbury), many hours afterward zipping the berries from the stems with a fork and subsequently brewing up several large containers of vivid purple wine in a garden shed. I think a rather messy explosion eventuated; I don’t actually remember drinking any of the stuff.
Plant family: Adoxaceae
Also known as: Elder
Relatives: Viburnum spp.,
moschatel (Adoxa spp.),
Where to grow
Elderberries are not too fussy when it comes to putting down roots. Sandy or loamy soil types of reasonable fertility are ideal, but these happy-go-lucky characters will do well in heavier soils too. They will even tolerate some waterlogging for short periods of time. They are fastgrowing, with shallow, fibrous root systems – keep this in mind when cultivating near them or carrying out manual weed control.
They make a great windbreak or hedge, thrive in both sun and semi-shade, and establish easily planted amongst an existing treeline. Being deciduous, they let in the winter light too.
Anecdotally, they are considered an excellent companion plant, seeming to enhance the growth of nearby plants rather than competing with them. Avoid exposed coastal conditions.
You can pretty much plant an elderberry and walk away. The recommended spacing is two to five metres between plants; closer if you are hedging. A handful or two of general fertiliser applied a couple of times during the growing season won’t go amiss if high fruit yields are your aim.
Most elderberries I know of are largely left to their own devices and grow into multi-stemmed, shrubby trees. If your life is a bit more ordered, there’s nothing stopping you from training yours to have a single, solid trunk. If your tree gets away on you, you can prune it back in the autumn. There are several schools of thought on this; the main thing to bear in mind is that fruit is produced on the current season’s growth. Removing old, spent stems will encourage new stem growth in spring. You can prune right back to the ground and the plants will regrow, or take a more moderate approach and leave about half a dozen one-year-old shoots and half as many again two-year-old shoots.
Elderflowers are ready for gathering around November and the berries ripen in February. The flowers are appreciated by pollinating insects and small berries are appreciated by birds. You will likely need to net your berry crop in urban settings; less likely in rural environments where there are larger numbers of trees present. All of my best harvests have been from the wild, so to speak.
Plan to use the fruit and flowers the day of harvest as they don’t store well.
My top use for elderflowers (apart from champagne and cordial of course) is harnessing their musky, sweetly-sweaty fragrance, which combines fantastically with rhubarb and gooseberries, conveniently ripe at the same time. Throw half a dozen clusters in the pot when you stew either and retrieve the empty stems later. Sweeten to taste with elderflower cordial for an extra flavour boost. Elderflower and strawberry is a nice spring-y combination too.
Pick the berries by the cluster, there is a sweet spot on the stem where it breaks off with a satisfying snap – practice makes perfect. As mentioned previously, a fork makes quick work of separating the fruit from the stems for processing. Avoid consuming green berries or leaves – they are unpleasantly purgative.
When I happen upon a decent crop of berries, I always make some elderberry syrup to stick away for winter ills and chills – recipes abound online. Once the cooked berries are strained off, I pass them through a mouli to PHOTOS remove the (plentiful) seeds and save the resultant pulp – it usually gets frozen for adding to mixed berry jam, but this year I blended it up with some raspberries and made some rather nice fruit leather with my dehydrator.
Origins and where to source
Germinating elderberries from seed is possible but a bit of a faff (stratification and/or scarification is required and even then, germination can be erratic). I’ve found them ridiculously easy to grow from hardwood cuttings in winter – cut 15-20cm lengths with 3-4 bud pairs present, dip in some hormone gel and plunge into a deep pot containing 50:50 sand and pumice. Bottom heat is nice if you can provide it, but mine have always done just fine sitting outside under the eaves of the garden shed for the winter. They’ll be away racing by spring, fibrous roots aplenty and ready to be separated and potted on in some decent potting mix with a handful of sheep pellets and/or compost for luck.
Native to the hedgerows and woodlands of Europe, elderberries are highly ornamental, and several cultivars, e.g. ‘Gerda’, have pinky-red flowers and dark red foliage. There are also golden-leaved forms, and a subspecies, S. nigra var. fructo-lutea, that has golden yellow berries. Unless you have an obliging friend or neighbour, head to your local nursery or garden centre for the fancier varieties.
Elderberry may be considered a pest plant in some areas or regions, so it’s always best to check before you plant.
Anna-Marie Barnes is the New Zealand Tree Crops Association’s South Island Vice-President. She holds a Bachelor of Science (Primary Production) with a background in agroecology and entomology, and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching and Learning (Secondary). A lifelong gardener, she is a dedicated self-sufficiency enthusiast and endeavours to grow as much of her own produce as possible on a lifestyle block on the West Coast, with three unruly Orpington hens.