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Elderberry
A Native Edible Plant

by Fran Palmeri and Laurel Schiller


American elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a native shrub found throughout much of the United States. In Florida, we have Sambucus nigra subspecies Canadensis. It grows naturally in moist locations along stream banks, road ditches and pond shorelines, and will do well in sunny low spots in most Florida gardens.

It is an excellent choice for rain gardens. Elderberry is a tall, spreading shrub with multiple slender trunks. In late winter and early spring, it offers abundant large flat-topped clusters of tiny white flowers followed by small purple berries in the summer. It reaches 10-15 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide. Elderberry is deciduous in North Florida but generally evergreen in Central and South Florida. The flowers attract many kinds of pollinators, birds cherish the berries and people can enjoy the plants for beauty and practical uses as well.



All parts of the Elderberry shrub – flowers, berries, roots, bark and leaves – have long been used for a variety of edible and medicinal purposes. Archaeologists have documented Elderberry use by Florida’s indigenous peoples eight thousand years ago. Native Americans and settlers alike knew Elderberry and just a few generations ago, it was known as the “country medicine chest.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, written in the 1950s, Euell Gibbons raves about the health benefits of both the flowers and berries which he thought of as “one of nature’s richest sources of vitamin C.” Researchers have found that the berries contain high levels of antioxidants. They stimulate the immune system and speed healing from flu, a finding that perhaps even the Pope subscribes to since the Vatican ordered three times the usual number of bottles of elderberry extract during the swine flu epidemic.



ALWAYS COOK ELDERBERRIES BEFORE CONSUMING to eliminate toxins. Do not eat raw elderberries.


You can find Swiss-made tonics at health food stores but it’s not difficult to make your own. Mix 50% elderberries and 50% muscadine grapes or another fruit with some water, bring it to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. Pour into ice cube trays and bag the cubes for use over the next several months. Berries can be frozen or dried and later rehydrated to use in jams, chutneys, preserves, pancakes, bread, muffins, tarts, pies and wine. It is the wine that everyone remembers. These days you can buy a bottle of  Manischewitz elderberry wine online but much better, make your own, a  process best done in community. Organize wine-making parties to help from picking to decanting. Recipes for using both berries and flowers can be found online.


Obtain your own plants from a reliable native nursery so that you won’t be tempted to harvest from natural areas or from the roadside, where herbicides and other pollutants may be on the plants.
One mature plant could give you enough for wine or other culinary and medicinal uses. Elderberry shrubs require little care. Use compost or an organic fertilizer to feed your plant and you’ll be rewarded with vigorous growth and abundant fruiting. Elderberry grows fast – you’ll have fruit in the second year of growth. Remove basal suckers if you don’t want more plants (share with friends and neighbors). For harvesting, branches bend within easy reach or use a step stool. Leave the uppermost blooms and fruit for the mourning doves, mockingbirds and catbirds.

 

As gardeners, we are often attracted to the latest, oddest and most exotic. Let’s reconnect with our heritage and stop trying to grow species that won’t thrive in our gardens because we don’t have the right soils or climate for them. Let’s be mindful that too many introduced plants have become invasive species destroying natural habitat. Planting and using our native Elderberry is a wonderful example of how we can think and act locally and naturally, rediscover knowledge from prior generations, enjoy plants that flourish without added nutrients, water and pesticides; and at the same time support our wild companions: birds, butterflies and other pollinators.

Learn more about Florida Native Plants and where to purchase them by visiting www.FloridaNativePlants.com and www.PlantRealFlorida.org  

Photo credits:
Elderflower - John Cardina, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org

Elderberries - Theodore Webster, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

Elder shrubs - Annie Schiller, Florida Native Plants Nursery & Landscape