Ah, elderberries, deliciously poisonous, yet good for you. The fruit you should eat…if you know what you’re eating. While they say all berries are edible, at least once, the berry of the Sambucus genus is indeed edible but MUST be cooked first to break down the cyanide-inducing glycoside. Why? Because, eating too much of the cyanide-inducing glycosides will cause a toxic buildup of cyanide (yes, that is poison) in the body and will make you sick, put you in a coma, and/or possibly kill you. When you heat the berries it destroys the cyanide-inducing glycosides in the seeds and therefore makes the berries safe to eat. It should also be noted that all other parts of the elderberry plant are toxic and should NOT be eaten ever, with the exception of the flowers.
Ok, now that you know that VERY important tidbit, let’s move on shall we? If you’re searching out the mighty elderberry, know that this member of the Adoxaceae family goes by many names including, but not limited to, Common, Sweet, American, European, or Mexican Elder, Boor Tree, Holunderbeeren, Sambucus, Sambuci, Sauco, Sureau, and Tapiro. The names used are typically based on regional preference, but also the variety of elderberry. The four main types of elderberry include the Black, Blue, Red, and Ornamental elderberry. All these are deciduous shrubs, except for the Ornamental variety, as it can be either a shrub or a perennial.
When we think of elderberries we usually think of the Black variety (Sambucus nigra ssp Canadensis). This variety of elderberry produces dark purple or blackberries that are often used for culinary and medical uses. Wines, tonics, extracts, syrups, pies, and jams are often made using black elderberries. Due to their dark pigments, they’re a good source of anthocyanins and polyphenols, which are great as cancer preventers and cardiovascular health and immune system boosters. This variety enjoys moderate temperatures and grows wells in plant hardiness zones 3-7.
The Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. caerulea) is used medicinally and as a dye for various products. This variety, like the black elderberry, also produces a dark berry. Blue elderberries tend to prefer slightly warmer temperatures than do the Black elderberry variety and grows well in zones 7-10. It has become quite a prolific native in areas such as California.
The Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemose), which seems to be the variety that gets a bad rap for being poisonous, is as edible as the other elderberry varieties. However, as mentioned before, they can be toxic if not cooked properly, or if the other parts of the plants are consumed. The Red variety prefers cooler climates and can even grow in zone 1.
The Ornamental variety covers a wide range of cultivars (40+). These cultivars are grown predominantly for their foliage, flowers, and habitat for an assortment of wildlife. However, they do typically produce berries, which like the other varieties, are edible if prepared properly.
With its many varieties and a wide range of possible growing spaces, the elderberry has long been grown and used throughout history. It’s thought that the seeds of this plant were deposited across Asia, Europe, and North America by glaciers as they retreated due to the climate change that occurred over 11,000 years ago. Elderberry seeds have been discovered in 4,000-year-old Neolithic pole-dwellings in Switzerland. They have also been recorded as being used medicinally in both Greek and Roman histories.
Looking at the nutritional profile of these delectable berries, it’s no wonder they have been enjoyed throughout history. In a 1 cup (145 grams) serving you get 105 calories, 1 gram of fat and protein, and 27 grams of carbohydrates (10 grams of which is dietary fiber). Elderberries are an excellent source of Vitamins A, C, and B-6. They are a good source of non-heme iron and potassium. They also provide us with the other B Vitamins, sans B-12, and the minerals, calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc.
If you’re ready to plant these edible beauties, then find a large area in full sun, with well-drained soil. It’s best to plant more than one bush, allowing at least 6’ between plantings, but within 50’ of each other, as this produces better fruiting. You will also need some patience with elderberries, as it will take up to 3 years before they produce fruit. You can find shrubs at your local nursery or you can propagate an elderberry bush from both from seed and from cuttings. However, you chose to plant your elderberries just know that some varieties can reach as tall as 20’.
As your elderberries grow, be on the lookout for the elderberry borer beetle. This is a long-horned beetle with a dark metallic blue color and notable central orange band. This beetle’s pesky larvae burrow up through the center of the plant’s stem, killing the infected stem. If you find your elderberries are plagued with this beetle then you must prune and burn the stems to kill the larvae.
As late summer and early fall rolls around your elderberries will be ready to harvest. Allow berries to fully ripen and then clip off the entire cluster of berries. Strip the berries off the stalk and store them in the refrigerator. One mature shrub usually produces 13-15 lbs. of fruit.
So, what do you do with all that fruit? That’s right, time to get creative in the kitchen! Elderberries can be used like most any berry, but, as mentioned before, be sure to cook them before consuming. A great way to get them cooked and enjoy their flavor is in warm delicious breakfast muffins!
Elderberry Banana Muffins
1 cup almond flour
2 overripe bananas, peeled and mashed
2 T Butter
3 eggs, whites and yolks separated
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup elderberries
2 tsp cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350°F
Line muffin pan with paper liners
Combine all ingredients, except for egg whites, in a large bowl
Using a mixer, beat egg whites on high until soft peaks form
Using a rubber spatula, gently fold egg whites into mixture
Spoon mixture evenly into muffin pan
Bake for ~30 minutes
Serve warm with a dab of butter and enjoy!
As mentioned before, besides the berries, the only other portion of the plant you should consume are the flowers. While the flowers can be steeped to make a tea, which is great for easing indigestion, colds, and flu, my favorite thing to make with the flowers is a little bubbly.
Sparkling Elderflower Wine
10 large fresh, undamaged flowers with stalks removed: (Note: Do NOT wash the flowers. Their natural yeasts are what cause fermentation. Just be sure to shake off any insects.)
2 pints boiling water (filtered/non-chlorinated)
6 pints cold water (filtered/non-chlorinated)
1 lb. honey*
¼ cup apple cider vinegar**
Place the honey in a very large bowl
Pour in 2 pints of boiling water
Stir until the honey is dissolved
Add 6 pints of cold water
Add vinegar and flowers and stir
Cover bowl with a clean dishtowel
Let sit at room temperature for 2 days (stir 2x each day)
By the end of day 2, signs of fermentation should be visible (top of mixture will look bubbly, particularly when stirred)
If the mixture isn’t bubbly after day 2, add a tiny pinch of wine or baker’s yeast
Wait an additional 2 days (stir 2x each day)
Once you have a bubbly mixture, pour the fermenting brew through a finely meshed sieve
Transfer strained brew into clean ceramic or beer bottles with flip tops (Do NOT use corked wine bottles as the brew can pop out the corks or cause the bottles to burst!)
Leave 1” of space between the surface of the brew and the rims of the bottles
Secure the tops
Leave at room temperature for 1 week
Burp the bottles 1x/day
After 1 week, move bottles to the refrigerator
Continue to burp bottles 1x/day for an additional week
Your elderflower wine will be ready to drink after 3 weeks, but allowing it to sit longer improves the flavor and texture. Your final brew will taste just a bit sweet and have a nice fizz to it. Cheers!
There are substitutions in this recipe you can make if you prefer:
*1.5 lbs. sugar can be substituted for the honey
**White wine vinegar or 2 large whole lemons chopped and their juice plus 2 tablespoons vinegar can replace the ACV
While you don’t want to eat elderberries straight off the plant, they are a delicious addition to your garden and culinary creations. Beautiful and useful, these berries are wonderful to grow, all they need is a little patience and preparation. So, as look for interesting fruit to place in your garden, think elderberries, and grow on my friends!
Choose My Plate.gov. US Department of Agriculture. SuperTracker. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/tools-supertracker
Natural Resource Conservation Service. USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program. Plant Guide. Blue Elderberry. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic5.pdf