Where does elderflower grow?

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The Complete Guide to Growing Elderberry Trees

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Growing elderberry trees is surprisingly easy. Elderberries and elderflowers make delicious foods and beverages, plus research shows they’re a helpful immune-boosting medicine to fight colds, flus, and inflammation. Here’s a complete guide to growing and harvesting your own elderberries and elderflowers!

Elderberry, aka Sambucus, is a small, deciduous tree that grows in virtually every temperate region on earth. There are dozens of different species of Sambucus around the world. Some species feature red berries, some blue, some black/purple.

A beautiful 5-gallon bucket full of perfectly ripe elderberries from Tyrant Farms.

In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to grow one particular species of elderberry: Sambucus nigra, aka “black elder,” which has native subspecies throughout North America, Europe, and western Asia.

Native ranges of various elderberry species in North America, which grow from Ag Zone 5-8. Sambucus nigra range shown in green. Image courtesy Elbert L. Little, Jr., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

Sambucus nigra plants feature dark purple-black berries, and are generally considered to produce the best tasting fruit of all the elderberry species. They also have the highest concentrations of health-boosting compounds such as anthocyanin (which gives the berries their purple/black color).

We grow Sambucus nigra varieties, and recommend you do as well. For easier reading, we’ll simply refer to Sambucus nigra as “elderberries” for the remainder of this article.

Growing elderberry trees in an edible urban landscape works perfectly. The two large plants at the very back of our edible landscape are elderberry trees that are starting to flower. The white flowering plant in front is yarrow, not elderberries.

Where does the name elderberry come from?

The name “elderberry” comes from the Anglo Saxon word “æld,” which sounds like “old” but actually translates to “fire.” Centuries ago, the hollow, straight stems of elderberry branches were used to blow air into a hot fireplace, fueling the flame.

Given that the center of a cut and dried elderberry branch has a light styrofoam-like texture that would make an ideal fire-starting material, our bet is this feature also factored into the plant’s old Anglo Saxon name as well.

Growing Elderberry Trees: A Step-By-Step Guide

In our experience, growing elderberry trees is surprisingly easy compared to other fruit trees to grow.

We have four mature elderberry trees, and they produce all the flowers and fruit we can handle. Our elderberries have had zero pest or disease problems and once established, and we’ve only had to irrigate them once (during a severe summer drought).

One of the elderberry trees in our front yard (large plant in the back with white flower clusters).

The only negative thing we can say about growing elderberry trees is that they produce more fruit than we have time to harvest during peak fruiting season in early summer.

Sound good? Then plan to grow your own!

This rainbow formed over the top of blooming elderflowers which is an undeniable sign that you should starting growing elderberry trees this year.

Below is a step-by-step Growing Elderberry Trees Guide that will show you exactly what you need to know to grow huge quantities of elderberries and elderflowers.

Step 1: Planning For Your Elderberry Trees

There are some important details you’ll need to take into consideration before growing elderberry trees:

1. Are elderberries self-pollinating? How many elderberry varieties do I need for best fruit production?

Technically, elderberries are self-pollinating, but apparently bred varieties don’t perform well without another variety growing nearby.

Pollinators (like our neighbor’s European honeybees) LOVE elderflowers. Help your pollinators and yourself by growing multiple varieties of elderberry to enjoy larger yields.

Pollination by a different elderberry variety is supposed to significantly increase fruit set and berry size. This means you should grow at least two varieties of elderberries.

2. How close together should I plant my elderberry trees?

  • You should plant your elderberry trees no more than 50′ apart for cross-pollination.
  • If you’d like to plant your elderberry trees more densely, space them no closer than 10′ apart.

3. How big are elderberry trees?

Mature elderberry trees can get quite large, about 10-12′ tall x 8′ wide.

One of the elderberry trees in our front yard at the very beginning of its bloom cycle.

4. Do elderberry trees need full sun? Can they tolerate part shade?

For maximum fruit production, plant your elderberry trees in full-sun spots. Elderberries can also grow in part shade, but you’ll get lower yields.

5. How long do elderberry trees live?

60 years, or about 1/10 the lifespan of Keith Richards.

6. What do elderberry trees look like? Are they attractive?

Elderberries have a triangular shape: small base with wide top. The branches are fairly brittle. One problem we’ve encountered growing elderberry trees is that the flower/berry clusters form at the tip of each branch.

An elderflower cluster starting to bloom. Each small flower will become a berry.

When the branches are loaded with fruit, they tend to hang down under the weight, which makes them prone to snapping during heavy winds and storms.

Attractiveness is subjective, but elderberry trees are generally considered to be attractive landscape plants (3 of our trees are located in our front yard). They’re especially beautiful when they flower in June. The ends of every branch are covered in clusters of sweet-smelling white flowers that are buzzing with pollinators.

This is the entrance to our driveway when our elderflower trees are in full bloom.

6. What ag zone do elderberries grow in?

Sambucus nigra elderberries grow from zones 5-8. Towards the top of this article, you can see a map depicting the natural zones of various species of elderberries native to North American.

Based on the information above, make sure you have the space and ideal growing conditions before committing to growing elderberry trees.

Step 2: Choosing Elderberry Seeds, Cuttings, or Bare Root Plants

When growing elderberry trees, there are three ways you can source your plants:

1. Growing elderberry trees from seed – 3 years until fruit

An individual elderberry is about 1/8 – 1/4″ in diameter. Inside the berry is about 3-5 small seeds.

Each year, mockingbirds unintentionally start dozens of elderberry trees from seed in our yard, when they eat the berries and excrete the seeds. (Coincidentally, this is how elderberries spread in the wild.) Unfortunately for us, the mockingbirds don’t tend to aim for spots in our garden where we want elderberry trees growing, so we have to pull the young plants before they get established.

You can also start new elderberry plants from seeds you find in the mature berries — although we don’t recommend you use the mockingbird method due to sanitation concerns. Simply plant your elderberry seeds 1/2 – 1/4″ deep in containers in early spring, then transplant them out to their final spots when they’re about 6″ tall. Or take the lazy approach and sow the seeds directly in the desired spot in your garden.

Since elderberries readily hybridize, you’re unlikely to get plants that are true to the parent when growing elderberry plants from seed. However, you’re still likely to get good fruit from your new variety.

Growing elderberry trees from seed does means it will take you longer to get a harvest (3 years) than it will with the other two methods below (which will each give you fruit in 2 years).

Growing elderberry trees from seeds means you’ll need to wait an additional year to get this…

2. Growing elderberry trees from cuttings – 2 years until fruit

If you know someone who has mature elderberry plants, ask them to give you some of the cuttings when they cut their plants back in late winter. Or if you know how to identify wild elderberry plants, you can source your own cuttings.

Elderberry cuttings are ridiculously easy to root, as we found out the hard way years back when The Tyrant had me cut back our dormant elderberry “shrubs” from 12′ tall to about 6′. I took the cuttings and tossed them at the back of our property next to a path.

When spring came, we noticed that every single elderberry branch that was touching the ground had put down roots and was sending up new growth. Since we didn’t want elderberry trees growing in that spot, all of the now-rooted plants had to be pulled out of the ground.

When growing elderberry trees from cuttings:

  1. Collect cuttings in the fall, late winter, or early spring. Hot, dry summer conditions can reduce your elderberry transplanting success.
  2. Use branches that are 1/2″ – 1″ in diameter. Cut them into 1′ long cuttings. Be sure you’re using living branches, which will have a green streak under the bark.
  3. Either: a) stick the cuttings 6″ deep in containers with potting soil, or b) stick them 6″ in the ground in their final location. If you go with option b, be sure to first amend the soil with ~40% compost to native soil. Then top-dress around the plant with 2-3″ of mulch/wood chips (being careful not to put mulch against the stem of the plants).
  4. Water in the elderberry cutting. Keep the soil moist (but not wet) until you see new growth on the cutting by ensuring that it gets at least 1″ of water per week via rain or irrigation.

You’ll never forget picking your first ripe elderberry cluster.

3. Growing elderberry trees from bare root or potted plants – 2 years until fruit

If you order elderberries from an online plant nursery, you’ll get small potted or bare root plants in the fall or spring. These are ready to go in the ground immediately.

To plant, simply follow steps 4 and 5 from the elderberry cuttings section above.

The benefits of growing elderberry trees from bare root or potted elderberry plants are:

  1. You can order specific named varieties from a plant nursery/breeder,
  2. You can be absolutely certain you’re getting multiple varieties to ensure good fruit production.

This is why we originally bought our elderberry trees as bare root plants.

Elderberry Varietals: We grow ‘Adams’, ‘Johns’, and ‘Nova’ elderberry varieties. ‘York’ is another popular variety that we have yet to grow.

Frankly, we can’t tell much difference between any of our elderberry varieties in either taste, fruit size, or yield. However, all of the bred varieties we grow produce significantly larger berries and larger yields than the wild elderberry plants in our area.

Where to buy elderberries: ‘Adams’ elderberry, ‘Nova’ elderberry, ‘Johns’ elderberry, ‘York’ elderberry (*remember to order at least two varieties for ideal pollination and berry production)

This Carolina mantis says that all varieties of elderberry are its favorite.

Step 3: Elderberry Tree Maintenance

Water:

During the first year that your elderberry trees are in the ground, make sure they get 1″ of water per week via irrigation or rain.

After year 1, your elderberry trees should be well-established and not need any additional irrigation if you live in a temperate climate region where it rains regularly. We’ve irrigated our mature elderberry trees once: during a “150 year drought” three summers ago when we didn’t get rain for 3 months and temps remained in the 90s.

Soil fertility:

In the late winter-early spring before they break dormancy, put a 2-3″ layer of compost around your elderberry trees. Don’t till it in, let nature do the work. Then top-dress the compost with a 3-6″ layer of wood chips/mulch. Repeat these steps yearly.

This practice will give your elderberries all the nutrition they need to remain healthy and productive. If for some reason you notice your elderberry trees looking nutrient-deprived (yellowing leaves, stunted growth), sprinkle a slow-release organic fertilizer around the trees.

Pruning elderberry trees:

You don’t need to do any pruning during the first two years of an elderberry tree’s life. Frankly, pruning is optional from year 3+, although you’ll probably want to prune as follows:

  • Cut out any dead or weaker shoots or branches in the late winter;
  • In late winter before the trees break dormancy, cut the branches back to about 6′ tall. This way, you’ll be able to reach the flowers and fruit with a ladder in the spring and summer.

Elderberry suckers: Mature elderberries will send off lots of underground suckers from the parent plant. If not maintained, these can end up turning the area into a dense thicket of elderberry trees. In our experience, removing elderberry suckers is the maintenance chore that requires the most time of all when growing elderberry trees.

Pests and diseases:

We live in one of the most humid, disease-prone and insect-infested regions in the US. Another nice thing about growing elderberry trees: ours have never had a pest or disease problem despite our location.

Elderberry Pests: Japanese beetles do enjoy eating their leaves, but don’t do enough damage to warrant significant intervention. We simply put out Japanese beetle traps, then feed the beetles to our ducks who then turn the beetles into eggs for us (article).

Another reason not to use insecticides when growing elderberry trees? They’re covered with pollinator and other beneficial insects, especially when they’re flowering. Here’s a beautiful question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) resting on one of our elderberry trees.

As mentioned earlier, birds do like elderberries. We have so much fruit (including dozens of pounds of ripe elderberries each day in the summer), that birds don’t make a noticeable dent in our elderberry production. Since birds are also great insect predators, we’re perfectly happy to share our bounty with them.

If birds are putting a sizable dent in your elderberry production, try hanging aluminum pie pans in your elderberry trees. You can also put out an inflatable scarecrow owl – just move it around from time to time so the birds continue to think it’s real.

Elderberry diseases: If you encounter a plant disease on your elderberry trees, first make sure you’re using the compost + mulch method recommended previously. Unhealthy plants are much more prone to pests and diseases.

Next, consider using probiotic foliar sprays. Store bought Serenade or DIY actively aerated compost tea made from worm castings or compost will both help in disease prevention and reduction.

Step 4: Harvesting Elderberries and Elderflowers

Is it safe to eat elderberries? Are elderberries poisonous?

Do keep in mind that the leaves, twigs, branches, seeds, roots, and unripe (green) berries of elderberries contain cyanidin glycosides and alkaloids, which can be toxic to humans and animals.

Elderberry clusters ripening on our trees. The only parts of elderberry plants that are safe to eat are the flowers and ripe berries.

The ripe berries are perfectly safe as are the flowers.

How do you harvest elderflowers (elderberry flowers)?

One of the best things about growing elderberry trees is getting elderflowers, an absolute delicacy.

A harvest basket full of elderflower clusters.

The first year your elderberry trees produce flowers (year 2 or 3 after you start them), you’ll have a decision to make: should you harvest the flowers?

  • The more flowers you harvest, the less berries you’ll get.
  • If you harvest all the elderflowers, the plant will put more energy into future growth, but you’ll get no berries that year.

As your elderberry trees mature, you’ll have more flowers and fruit than you can handle. Given how brittle elderberry branches are, we focus our flower-harvesting efforts on the outside branches and the weaker branches. These are the branches most likely to snap in a storm when they’re fully loaded with berries.

In our ag zone (7B in Greenville, SC), elderflowers can be harvested in early June.

To harvest elderflowers, cut the entire flower stalk at the base. Repeat until you have all the flowers you want.

Processing elderflowers

Processing elderflowers takes a good bit of time.

Freshly harvested and processed elderflowers, ready to be dehydrated or used fresh in recipes. The subtle yet indescribably delicious flavor of elderflowers makes the effort of picking them more than worth it.

They don’t shake loose from the flower stalk very easily. Instead, they have to be pulled off by hand. The incredible flavor elderflowers impart make the effort well-worth it though.

Once you’ve removed the elderflowers from the stalk, you can either dry them for long term storage OR make them immediately into magical concoctions. Our personal favorite is the decadent Sparkling Elderflower Syrup/Cordial.

Tyrant Farms’ fermented elderflower cordial is our favorite use of elderflowers. Get our recipe here!

How do you harvest elderberries (fruit)?

When are elderberries ripe? How do you pick them? In our ag zone (7B in Greenville, SC), elderberries ripen from mid-late July.

Ripe elderberries are so dark purple that they appear black. After cutting off the berry clusters, you’ll need to remove the berries from the stems.

Wait until your elderberries are fully ripe before picking them. The berries should be dark purple-black in color.

Here are ripening elderberry clusters on the same tree. The first clusters will ripen up to two weeks before the final clusters ripen.

On a single large cluster of elderberries there may still be a few unripe berries that you can pull off and discard before processing.

Just as with the elderflowers, harvest ripe elderberries by cutting the entire head of elderberries off of the plant.

Freshly harvested elderberry clusters at Tyrant Farms, ready to have the berries removed from the stems.

How much fruit can a single elderberry tree produce?

The annual average yield is about 12-15 pounds per plant.

Processing elderberries

For the home gardener growing elderberry trees without mechanized processing equipment, there are two good options for removing ripe elderberries from their stems:

1. Bucket method – You can take a large 5-gallon food-grade bucket and whack the elderberry cluster back and forth again the inside. This removes most of the berries quickly, but does do more damage to the individual berries.

Processed elderberries using the “bucket method.”

2. Hand-removal method – Don’t worry, you won’t be required to remove your hands for this method. Start by cutting the larger berry cluster into more manageable chunks. Then hold the base in one hand while you pull the berries off over a bowl. Repeat until done. This method is fairly time-consuming. It takes about 1 hour to process 1.5 lbs of fruit.

What do raw elderberries taste like?

Frankly, not great. Raw elderberries taste similar to a watery blackberry.

However, when you cook elderberries some amazing chemistry takes place that turns their flavor into a rich blackberry/grape jam-red wine flavor that’s quite delicious.

How long will raw elderberries keep?

You’ll need to refrigerate or freeze your processed elderberries immediately. They’ll last in the fridge for up to one week before they’ll start to turn. Frozen elderberries will last for years.

What can you make with elderberries?

Jams, pies, gummies, wine, and pretty much anything else you can dream of making with berries. Our personal favorite is making elderberry syrup (our recipe), which we drink throughout the winter to boost our immune system and avoid getting sick.

Tyrant Farms’ elderberry syrup. Dang delicious, and a potent medicine as well. Get our recipe here.

Do elderberries have medicinal properties?

Yes. Elderberries and elderflowers have been used for centuries for their purported medicinal benefits. Recent studies have started to prove that elderberries do in fact have medicinal benefits that mirror their historical use.

For instance:

  • Elderberries can reduce the severity and duration of flus, colds, and bronchitis.
  • Elderberry and elderflower extracts have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-diabetes effects.

Elderberry nutrition: Aside from their medicinal benefits, elderberries are also high in vitamins and minerals.

As per Wikipedia: “Raw elderberries are 80% water, 18% carbohydrates, and less than 1% each of protein and fat. In a 100 gram amount, elderberries supply 73 calories and are a rich source of vitamin C, providing 43% of the Daily Value (DV). Elderberries also have moderate contents of vitamin B6 (18% DV) and iron (12% DV), with no other nutrients in significant content.”

Here’s how elderberries compare to other common fruits on select vitamins and minerals.

Elderberries are also one of the highest antioxidant fruits on earth, even ranking higher than blueberries and cranberries.

As a Purdue University analysis stated: “Our body uses antioxidants from plant origins to neutralize harmful free radicals and elderberry total antioxidant capacity is one of the highest of all the small fruits. In one study including the black elder (Fig. 2), this species came third for its antioxidant capacity as measured with the FRAP method (Halvorsen et al. 2002). Using the ORAC technique to measure the antioxidant potential of various small fruits, Wu et al. (2004a,b) showed that the American elder had a much higher potential than cranberry and blueberry, two fruits praised for their high antioxidant capacity (Fig. 3). Such a high antioxidant potential in American elderberries has been confirmed in our laboratory.”

A gorgeous bowl of elderflowers. Tasty medicine.

Grow elderberry trees is actually quite easy. Now you know how to do it AND how to harvest elderberries and elderflowers!

We highly recommend these easy-to-grow medicinal plants to home gardeners and diversified farmers alike.

KIGI,

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Where and How to Hunt for Elderflower

!–paging_filter–pLast year, I had an experience familiar to many a lazy mushroom hunter. I hit the snooze button one too many times and when I finally hit the road and sputtered into my favorite spring porcini patch well after sunrise, I was dismayed to find it picked clean. Evidence was all around like a crime scene: tire tracks, scrapes in the duff, even telltale trimmings left behind. brbrBut the day was not lost. I drove the logging roads back toward town, and as I got closer to civilization, I started seeing them—the inviting creamy white blossoms of elder bushes. With a pair of scissors in one hand and a plastic grocery bag in the other, I walked the road, picking the nicest blooms within reach. Never mind my fungal goose egg; a Champagne toast was in order—or, more specifically, a round of elderflower cordials.brbrElders are flowering shrubs found throughout much of the temperate and subtropical world. Northwest foragers seek out the blue elder (Sambucus cerulean), a species most commonly found in dry habitats east of the Cascades, and not to be confused with the inedible red elder that makes its home in moist forests around Seattle. The blue elder is an easy plant to identify, with compound leaves that are long, pointed and slightly serrated, and large flower clusters that paint the greenery with big splashes of white in springtime. brbrAlthough much of the plant is toxic, including the leaves and stems, its flowers are used to make infusions and desserts that evoke the feral sweetness of spring. It’s a hard flavor to pin down: fresh, floral, with a subtle accent of honey. Cream infused with the blossoms can be whipped into an ethereal dessert topping (think strawberry shortcake with elderflower whip), or try making a light air puff of an elder blossom fritter. Mostly, though, I bottle this essence of spring as syrup. (Later in summer, the berries can also be harvested to make preserves, sauces and even wine.)brbrCocktail culture’s triumph in recent years has seen a commensurate interest in botanical mixers. St-Germain and sambuca, from France and Italy, respectively, are both liqueurs made with elderflower. You can make your own aperitif by steeping the freshly picked blossoms in a simple syrup for several days, the result being a fragrant infusion that fancies up a glass of inexpensive prosecco. nbsp;brbrLook for blue elder on the dry, eastern slopes of the Cascades and, less commonly, in the sunniest locales west of the mountains. The canyon country of the Columbia plateau is a good bet, and in May and June, this means driving the byways of foothill and orchard, where the tall shrubs can be found along riverbanks and roadsides. Remember, those big clusters of creamy white blossoms will become big clusters of deep blue berries, so pick responsibly. I look for flower clusters with a high percentage of fully open blossoms and move quickly from tree to tree.brbrJeremy Faber of Seattle’s Foraged Found Edibles once told me that he always pays for his gas. By that he meant that even if a trip in search of mushrooms or some other fleeting delicacy is a bust, there’s always another wild ingredient to save the day. Those hunting spring porcini and morels, in particular, are advised to diversify their spring foraging portfolios, because all foragers at some point have experienced the hangdog effect of coming home empty-handed. Elderflower is the perfect ace in the back pocket, and a festive way to celebrate the season’s bounty.nbsp; brbrFind a recipe for elderflower syrup here. Follow Langdon Cook’s further adventures at a href=”http://www.fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com” target=”_blank”fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com/a/p

Elder Flower
Botanical Name: Sambucus canadensis

Elderflower, S. canadensis is also known as the North American elder and has been reclassified to a subspecies of S. nigra, along with the European or black elder. S.nigra is popularly cultivated in Europe and because the two varieties are so similar, the American elder is not cultivated commercially. It can be found growing naturally in wet, swampy areas across much of eastern and central North America and Canada.

As well as forming part of the edible garden, it can also be used as a feature plant in the garden. It grows 3 – 4m high. The dark green, compound leaves are pinnate or bipinnate with leaflets arranged oppositely around the stem, creating an overall length of up to 30 cm or more. Each leaflet has serrate edges, is quite large and may measure 3-12cm long by 2-6cm wide. The fragrant white flowers are large and bloom in inflorescences or clusters, about 30 cm in width. These are followed by the blue berry like fruits, but the plant may have both flowers and fruit for several weeks.

There are many uses for the fruit of the elderflower plant, as both a food and a health supplement. The many varieties of elder have been used all over the world for many centuries. Native Americans valued elderflower as a medicinal herb and used it to treat many conditions. Other uses included repelling insects and creation of a black dye from the bark.

Growing Conditions

Elderflower, or elderberry, is a vigorous, soft leafed deciduous shrub that can grow from 3-4 meters. The elderberry plant is quite adaptable to Australian conditions and will grow in most soil types, including wet soils. This plant likes full sun, but is happy to grow in part shade as well. After flowering, the fruit appears in late summer and the stems may droop under the weight of hundreds of small berries. Choose your position carefully, as this multi-stemmed plant suckers upwards and spreads. You may choose to grow it in a pot for this reason, or use a root barrier in the garden.

Medicinal Uses

Elderberry has a long history of medicinal use and although the American elderflower plant is not widely cultivated, research has indicated that there is great potential in its general health benefits. Elderberries have been found to have a high concentration of compounds known for their antioxidant activity and have greater potential health benefits than blueberries and cranberries. In addition, they have a much higher content of Vitamins A, C and B6 than other berries.

The traditional uses of elderflower plants involved the whole plant, with teas and tinctures made from the bark and fruit used for many ailments. Caution is advised using the raw plant products due to potential toxicity. However, elderflower has been used for a wide array of complaints such as stomach ache, constipation, diarrhoea and acts as a laxative and diuretic. However, most commonly the plant has been used as a topical application to treat fungal and bacterial infections, bruises, skin conditions, and as an anti-inflammatory application for wounds. Traditional uses also include for sore throats, coughs and respiratory infections, where it is thought to reduce swelling of mucous membranes. A tea to assist with cold and flu can be made by steeping 3-5grams of dried elder flower in one cup of boiling water for 10-15 minutes. Strain the flowers off and then drink three times daily. It also combines well with peppermint and yarrow to make the popular blend YEP tea for colds and flu.

Culinary Uses

Elderberry has a bitter taste when uncooked and must NOT be used in its raw state. Uncooked berries and other parts of the elder family of plants contain cyanide inducing glycosides and can be extremely toxic. Caution is advised before using raw or dried fruits.

However, both the flowers and berries have a wide array of culinary uses. The flowers can be covered in batter and made into fritters, soaked in water to make a drink or dried flowers can be used to make a pleasant tea. The fruits are popularly cooked or made into syrups for pies, jams, jellies, sauces and other desserts. They can also be added to other food, such as bread rolls once made into syrup. Wine, beer and other drinks may also be made from the berries and the flowers used as decoration in desserts.

Elderberry syrup can be made from your own fruit and used on pancakes or added to water for a nice summer drink. Try this recipe: Take 1 cup each of water, fresh elderberries and granulated sugar and combine with ½ teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and nutmeg in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally and then let simmer for 20 minutes, with occasional stirring. You can also try variations by adding honey or cloves to your taste.

It is a beautiful day: there are skylarks, high puffs of cloud and broken sunshine. It is too cool for shirtsleeves when the pools of sunshine are out of reach but warm enough to bask when a brisk wind pushes the clouds aside. The meadows are up, the grasses playing tall and not yet pushed about by wet and squall, and I am writing today with the sound of bumblebees busying themselves in the linaria.

The garden is still late and although the elderflower is blooming sweetly in London and on the motorway verges on the first hour out of town, it is a couple of weeks behind in Somerset. Growing fast and lushly, they dominate at this time of year, elbowing their neighbours aside and making sure they get the light they need for their harvest of berries. Having lived fast, they do get old before their neighbours, splitting at the base after a decade or so to leave a broken tooth in the hedge line. Bad behaviour aside, the deadwood makes the best of kindling and a year without elderflower syrup is a year without summer captured in a jar.

I would never volunteer to plant a common Sambucus nigra in a garden setting. The likelihood is that they will arrive on their own from seed carried in by songbirds that have feasted on the glut of berries. These are some of the first to ripen in the autumn, hanging shiny and black in heavy trusses, and they are gone in a minute once the weather cools.

Ornamental: Sambucus Nigra ”Black Lace”. Photograph: Alamy

Elder will grow anywhere, and this is why, in the selected varieties, they make a useful garden plant. They will grow as happily on chalk as they will on thin acidic sand, and give them heavy, wet clay and they will put on more than a metre a year. They are adaptable to sun or to shade, growing tighter and flowering more heavily in sun and more lushly in shade, where flowering will also be lighter. Though the foliage might burn in salt-laden winds, it will regenerate and they make good frontliners for this reason.

Their speed of growth and willingness to settle in fast is useful behaviour and I will often use them to provide height and volume when it’s needed. Sambucus race upwards when they are happy, and this makes them useful as a “nurse” plant for slower-growing shrubs that need some initial shelter. I used them in my garden in London, to provide height and volume in the early years, and removed them later, seeing their contribution as easy come, easy go.

Sambucus nigra “Laciniata” is the closest you can get to the wild elder without the thuggish behaviour. The flowers are cream and held flat, like balancing plates among netted foliage. Growth is light and airy, each leaf netted like a delicate seaweed, and they make a delightful foil for ascending foxgloves and wilding roses. They are also good for growing in grass and I’ll use them to feather a garden out into more natural places.

Cream froth: Sambucus nigra ‘Laciniata’. Photograph: Alamy

Sambucus nigra “Black Lace” is in many ways similar to look at but it is altogether more ornamental for its colouring. The foliage is as dark as damsons and glossy when it emerges. The flowers are the colour of blackberry fool and make a wonderful compliment to moody perennials such as Astrantia “Roma” and Lilium martagon. Once the plants establish, you can also use them as a frame for Clematis viticella, their tiny flowers adding a myriad of later-summer interest. Cut the plants back to a tight framework in the winter to encourage a wonderful crop of lush foliage.

“Black Beauty” is another dark-leaved variety with uncut foliage, dark-coloured stems and the same pink in the flower. It is quieter than “Black Lace” and perhaps less of a talking point. Of the yellow-leaved varieties the American elder, Sambucus racemosa “Sutherland Gold”, is the best. Find it a cooler corner to keep it in good condition and team it with Digitalis purpurea “Apricot” to amplify its early salmon colouring. It will not flower as profusely, or provide you with cordial, but as it dims to a soft gold you will be happy to have the continued freshness of a summer solstice.

Get Growing

Heel cuttings of elder strike easily if taken now from semi-ripe wood. Ideal material is this year’s side shoots to a main branch. Root in 50: 50 sharp grit and compost in a cool corner out of direct sunlight

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Weeds. They’re an inevitable fact of life for any gardener, despite the claims by some that it’s possible to have a entirely weed free garden. Last weekend an article in my local property guide declared in bold type “Give weeds the flick for good”. Frankly, this is utter bollocks.

I’m yet to visit a garden that is entirely devoid of weeds, and the fact is, not all weeds are evil monsters intent on taking over. Many are virtuous. Some might even be described in glowing terms. The late British nature writer Richard Mabey called weeds “outlaw plants”, and it’s a phrase I’ve become fond of using. Outlaws have long held a romantic fascination in western society (does the name Ned Kelly ring a bell?), and I like the way Mabey uses it as a term of endearment for otherwise vilified plants.

One of my favourite outlaws is elderberry, Sambucus nigra. The plant is very tough, grows in a wide climatic range, has poisonous foliage, self seeds, and has a notorious tendency to sucker. Some people think it’s a pest, but in my view, elder’s virtues outweigh its faults. For one, the flowers and berries are medicinal. Studies have shown that a syrup made from the berries helps when recovering from the flu, and in Europe the flowers are sold in chemists for the relief of congestion.

Elderberries can be distilled or made into wine, and can be used as the main ingredient in jams and jellies. But the supreme culinary use for elderberry plants, in my opinion at least, is to make elderflower cordial. Nothing on God’s green earth is quite as refreshing, and if there’s a hint of lemon in the mix, all the better.

To make it combine six cups of sugar with three cups of water in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is fully dissolved. Reduce the heat, add the zest of three lemons and two cups of lemon juice to the syrup and mix in a tablespoon of citric acid. Add about forty elderflower heads, bring back to the boil and simmer for five minutes.

Leave the cordial to cool before straining it through a sieve lined with muslin to separate the flowers. Pour into the sterilised bottles, seal and store in the freezer for a year, or in the fridge for three months. If you can’t wait, combine the cordial with soda water and some icecubes in a tall glass and down it after a hard day’s graft in the vegie patch. You’ll never call elderberry a weed again!

By: Justin Russell

First published: March 2013

Elderflower cheesecake – recipe below Brent Darby Photography LTD

2. Elderflower cordial

Elderflower cordial is the alcohol-free alternative.

Method

  1. Zest and slice three unwaxed lemons and one unwaxed orange, and place in a saucepan with 2kg granulated sugar and 1.5 litres cold water. Gently heat until the sugar dissolves.
  2. Add 25-35 elderflower heads, stalks removed, and stir to submerge. Add 1tsp citric acid (optional), which helps to preserve the cordial.
  3. Cover the pan and leave to infuse for at least 24 hours. Meanwhile, sterilise glass bottles by washing in hot, soapy water and leaving to dry in a low oven, or putting them through a dishwasher cycle.
  4. Line a colander with muslin or a clean tea-towel, and place over a large bowl or pan. Ladle in the cordial to filter it. Discard the flowers, lemon and orange. Pour the filtered cordial into a jug and use a funnel to fill the bottles. Seal and label.

You can, of course, dilute the cordial with still or sparkling water, or add it to sparkling wine, gin and tonic, or vodka and soda. Alternatively, use in gooseberry or rhubarb dishes – crumbles, cakes, ice creams, jams – as the flavours work well together. Use cordial instead of lemon juice and sugar to drizzle over warm sponges.

Brent Darby Photography LTD

3. Elderflower fritters

For an impressive starter or snack, how about elderflower fritters? Make a batter from 100g flour, 2tbsp oil, 175ml sparkling water and 1tbsp sugar. Heat a pan of oil. Dip the elderflowers into the batter then gently fry until crisp and golden, then lift out and dip into caster sugar, or drizzle with honey.

And if you’re waiting for the flowers to bloom, you can pickle the green unopened flower buds to use like capers.

More elderflower recipes:

4. Fluffy homemade elderflower marshmallows

5. Elderflower cheesecake

6. Homemade elderflower liqueur recipe

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Learn how to identify elderflower and forage for this beautiful edible flower, plus ideas on how to use this fragrant and medicinal early summer blossom!

(This post is a contribution by Melissa Keyser)

Wise woman and herbalists say that plants appear in your life at the time you most need their healing powers. And they stay present for as long as you need them.

About a year and a half ago, I moved from my long-time home to a different region of California, one that I was not excited about or comfortable being in- it was a financial necessity, not a chosen shift that brought me to my new spot. And on the very first trip to my new home, I took a walk along the river, a place that would later become my nature salvation to mitigate urban living.

The first plant I recognized was elder. I knew elder from my books, both herbal, local flora identification, and from landscape design. While I knew elder grew in my last region, I had never noticed. But in my new home, Elder stood out as a pillar of hope. As I saw it growing in the wild places along the river, I knew it was telling me that I could always seek it out when I was feeling sad or lonely. Elder watches over. Since then, elder has become an important part of my foraging rhythms.

Why Forage for Elder

Elder, known in Latin as the Sambucus genus, are highly esteemed shrubs, and the flowers and berries it produces have played an important role in health and well-being throughout history. In Old traditions, elder was planted at the edge of the herb garden, to protect the space.

In the early summer, Elder gives us elderflower, clusters of lacy blossoms that are soon followed by clusters of juicy berries, perfect for turning into healing syrups. Making up a bottle of cordial or saving flowers for tea bottle up bits of the early summer, allowing us to access that warms and lightness during the darker and heavier days of winter.

Important to note:

ONLY the ripe berries and blossoms of elder are safe to eat. The stems, leaves, and unripe berries are toxic. You should also only seek out blue or black elderberries, the red elderberry varieties are also poisonous!

When to Find Elderflower

Elder is a flower of late spring. Right now in my region of California, late May and early June, is the time for forage for elderflower. The season for you might be much later, depending on when spring comes to your region. Berries will also vary depending on your climate, following about 2-3 months after the elderflowers bloom.

Where to Find Elderflower

There are varieties of elder that are native to almost all of North America and Europe. They grow in many different environments, from sides of the freeway to suburban backyards to remote woodland edges, and can be found in full sun to part shade. I most commonly find elder growing near, but not in, rivers and creaks.

The variety in my area is blue elderberry, sometimes known as Sambucus nigra sp. caerulea, sometimes Sambucus neomexicana. All varieties of blue and black elder have edible flowers and berries, but avoid varieties of red elderberries, which are toxic.

How to Identify Elderflower

Elderberry is deciduous, and can be a small tree with a single trunk but is more often a multitrunked shrub. Elders commonly grow by suckers, so they are often found in clumps, especially if growing in the shade. The stems are hollow, and when cut, filled with a pith inside.

You’ll want to use the leaves to ensure you have the right plant. The variety in my area has green leaves, which are compound, comprising of 5- 9 leaflets that are gently serrated. Some varieties, such the ornamental S. nigra cultivars, have black and lacy leaves.

Elders produce a flower head that is a large cluster of smaller clusters of tiny, star-shaped flowers. Some clusters can be as large as dinner plates, some are the size of your hand. The flowers heads turn towards the sun, then slowly turn over to face the earth as the berries start to develop and turn heavy with juice and seeds.

How to Harvest elderflower

Choose blooms that have just started to open, and look for creamy white flowers, with soft yellow pollen. Avoid clusters ones that have started to dry out and fade to brown or dark yellow or are looking crispy. You also want to avoid those that have started to develop into the tiny green berries.

Insects also love elderflowers, so you might encounter some on your flowers. Do a quick check before cutting, and give each flowerhead a shake before adding to your basket. Simply use snips or pruners to make a clean cut at the stem at the main stem holding the cluster of smaller flower heads. Remember, the leaves and stems are poisonous, so there is no need to bring home more plant than needed.

Elderflowers fade fast, so plan on drying or using soon after harvest. Harvest your elderflowers after any dew has dried, but go in the morning. Especially when it’s 100 degrees. It just makes life more pleasant. Watch out for stinging nettles if in a shady area or rattlesnakes if in a hot and grassy area, as both tend to live in the same environment as elders.

Elderflower Recipes

Elderflowers can be dipped in batter, fried and eaten as fritters. Local forager and outdoorsman Hank Shaw recommends making an elderflower beignet (fritters).

I like to dry some of my harvest for my home apothecary. Medicinally, elderflowers are used herbally to induce sweating and lower fevers. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar recommends making a strong brew of dried elderflower, peppermint, and yarrow to drink as a tea for a cold care remedy.

Or, one of the most popular ways to enjoy the delicate flavor of elderflower is to make a fragrant elderflower cordial.

Here are a few more creative ways to use elderflowers:

  • Elderflower Herbal Marshmallows
  • Elderflower Strawberry Jam
  • Elderflower Strawberry Popsicles

It’s that time of the year again – elderflower harvest. Hurray! Come and join us; you can make lots of money (we’re paying £2 per kilo) and it’s great fun too. Bring a picnic and enjoy the sunshine.

We’ve got two picking stations running again this year: one at Belvoir Fruit Farms (NG32 1PB) below Belvoir Castle and the other at Sacrewell Farm & Country Centre (PE8 6HJ) on the A47 between Stamford and Peterborough. Belvoir is open to receive flowers from 3.30pm – 6.30pm; Sacrewell from 3.30pm – 5pm.

In case you’re new to elderflower picking (or are in need of a refresher), here are some tried and tested tips to make your picking as successful as possible.

What to bring/wear:

• Bring an old-fashioned walking stick with a curved handle – they’re ideal for hooking down high branches and flowers.
• Wear sturdy jeans or trousers (without rips or holes in them) to protect you from nettles and brambles.
• Bring a hat and sunscreen – it can get quite hot in the hedgerows.
• Always have a bottle of water with you.
• Bring a snack or a picnic so you can keep going without feeling wobbly.

How to get the best

To clips it’s flowers:

• We reckon hessian weeding bags are the best for picking/keeping elderflowers in. You can get them from garden centres or from Amazon. Otherwise, a sturdy black bin bag will do; don’t use thin plastic because it just rips.
• NEVER COVER OR TIE THE BAGS UP BECAUSE THE FLOWERS WILL SWEAT, TURN BROWN AND WE CAN’T USE THEM.
• One you have picked your flowers leave them in the shade so that they stay cool and don’t go brown.
• No stalks please – when picking a flower simply slide your fingers up the stalk and snap the flower head off; it means you can pick quicker because you can hold three or four flowers in one hand before moving to the next branch.

Make sure you pick elderflowers and not cow parsley – you’d be stunned how many people make this mistake each year! Here’s a photo of the elderflowers:

For more information about elderflowers and elderflower picking .

We look forward to seeing you soon!

There’s something truly special about the elder, or Sambucus, plant and I’ve always felt a special connection to it. Not only does it proclaim to the world that summer is approaching and provide culinary and medicinal benefits, but it also somehow manages to be both utterly wild and elegantly refined at the same time. The plant is likely called “elder” because it is so old that you can find varieties of it around the world. It’s no surprise then that so many cultures have different symbolisms and uses attached to Sambucus including (but definitely not limited to) the below.

Symbolism

  • Shakespeare: Grief (the “stinking elder”), yet also beloved
  • Pagan: Superstitions around cutting it back or burning it (will cause bad luck)
  • Danish: The elder Mother or “vegetation goddess” lives in the tree (HyldeMoer) – you need to ask her permission before cutting it.
  • Sicilians: Kill serpents and drive away robbers
  • Serbians: Good luck if used during the wedding ceremony
  • England: Hold in pocket to ward off lightning, cross above animals to ward off evil

Supposed Medicinal Uses (Note: I have not looked into the scientific evidence supporting any of the below, but rather wanted to show the breadth of supposed medicinal uses)

  • Bark: Purgative, emetic, diuretic, asthma (not consumed anymore due to toxins)
  • Leaves: Bruises/sprains, wound healing, expectorant, diuretic (not consumed anymore due to toxins)
  • Flowers: Tea for swollen sinuses, colds, flu, diabetes, constipation, rheumatism, influenza, relaxant, complexion, blood purification
  • Berries: Hot wine for influenza, asthma, juice for antiviral/antibacterial

Food

Woodbridge Nursery Online

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At Woodbridge Nursery, we offer a large collection of perennial plants for the home gardener and landscape designer. Our plants are grown outside in the open air so they are healthy and tough, and hardened off to best acclimatise to your garden. With over 1000 varieties listed, we suggest browsing via the options in our menu, or to use the search window at the top right of this page to find a specific variety. Simply add items to the shopping cart to make your purchase, then click on the checkout icon to edit and finalise items in your shopping cart . Log in with your email adress, use the ‘back’ button in your browser to revisit the previous page .

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Woodbridge Nursery
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Feature Plant Friday – Elder: A Plant of the World

You may have seen our post on Instagram earlier in the week for Swiss National Day (if you missed it you can check it out here). So today, we are delving into the cultural history surrounding the elder (or holder in Switzerland), the Swiss native most commonly known as elderflower or elderberry. This magical plant has an extensive medicinal and superstitious history, and is even the wood that the Elder Wand is made from in the Harry Potter series!

Originating from Æld, Saxon for ‘fire’, the elder was named for the use of its hollowed branches as blowpipes to start and stoke fires by removing the pith (spongy tissues inside the stems). Although the elder is considered a weed in Australia due to its rampant growth and easily spread seeds, its ornamental flowers and leaves, fragrance, and its medicinal and culinary uses make it a welcome garden pest.

Faiths and Cultures:

The elder has a rich history in European folklore and culture, and it was thought to be bad luck if elder trees were cut down in Britain especially. This may have originated from Danish folklore, where it was believed that the Elder-tree Mother lived in the branches of and watched over elder trees, and would haunt anyone who cut it down and used the wood without asking for her permission.

The elder has also been believed to be a source of protection; in Danish folklore the pith was floated on water and lit on Christmas Eve, as its light would reveal nearby witches and sorcerers. In Russia it was thought to ward off witches and evil spirits, and in Sicilian folklore elders were believed to kill serpents and chase off robbers.

Elders were a major part of English folklore in particular, where elder crosses were tied to stables, worn as protection against rheumatism, and cross-shaped shrubs were planted on new graves, and if they flowered the person buried beneath was happy. Because of this, the elder became symbolic of sorrow and death in Britain, and, in the 14th century, was also believed to have been the tree that Judas was hanged from, which was referenced to in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost.

Medicinal Use:

Medicinally, the elder has been used for centuries, with traces of it found in Swiss archeo-botanical sites dating all the way back to the Late Bronze Age (1050 – 880 BC)!

Since then the elder has been used treat everything from gout, inflammation, and diabetes to joint pain, abscesses in the brain, and dog bites. While the effectiveness of the elder in treating many of these conditions has yet to be proven, it is now used in modern medicine to treat constipation and sinusitis in conjunction with anise, sorrel, and other flowers.

However, it should also be noted that the roots, stems, and raw, unripe berries of the elder are poisonous, and excessive consumption can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. This is due to the presence of sambunigrin, a cyanide attached to a sugar, where the cyanide is released when digested and the toxic effects can be felt. To avoid this, the flowers should be removed from stems and ripe berries should be cooked before consuming, as the cooking process breaks down sambunigrin safely.

Culinary Use:

Elders are also great for cooking, and the berries are a great source of vitamins C and A, as well as folic acid and potassium. Both the berries and flowers can be used to make syrup, which is used in cocktails, flavoured alcohols, and cordials, such as ‘Hugo’, a Swiss cocktail made from prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint, lime, and mineral water.The flowers can also be used to make elderflower sorbet, chocolate, tea, and the Swiss herbal sweet, Ricola. Socatǎ, a Romanian fizzy drink, also uses elderflowers, and inspired Coca Cola’s Fanta Shokata.

While the berries are less commonly used than the flowers, they are used to make elderberry wine, fruit pies, and relishes. Historically, elderberries were also used to doctor cheap wines and ports to make them appear more expensive. This practice became so popular that the cultivation of elder was banned in Portugal in 1747!

If you are interested in using elder into your cooking, these recipes are a great starting point:

Elderflower Syrup (Holunderblütensirup), Little Zurich Kitchen

Lemon and Elderflower Cheesecake, Homestead and Gardens

Chicken garden salad with elderflower dressing, BBC Good Food

Growing Facts:

With large clusters of fragrant, yellow, cream or white flowers in spring that become black, blue, or red berries, elders are an excellent source of nectar that attracts native butterflies and birds. If left unchecked, elders can grow anywhere from 2 m to 15 m depending on species. However, they can be maintained and shaped for use as hedgerows, while the prunings can be used as a mulch for the rest of your garden.

While most species are native to the temperate, subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, there are several species of elder that grow in parts of Australia, Asia, and South America too. They require a nitrogen-rich soil and will grow better in full sun than partial shade, and are able to live for up to 60 years.

Happy growing, cooking and eating!

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