Common Elderberry

By Rita Bober

Common Elderberry (flower)

As we get closer to spring, I begin to think of the many native and wild plants in our area that will begin to re-emerge from their winter sleep. One of my favorites is Common Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis). Elderberry is a member of the honeysuckle family, is a shrub and can grow up to 25 feet high. I have found two Elderberry shrubs growing on the north side of the woods at the end of our property. The first thing that strikes me about the shrub is when the flowers come out in the spring. They look so cool — white, lacy, branched, tiny flowers in flat-topped to slightly rounded clusters (panicles) that can spread over 6 inches across. They look like little umbrellas. Both the flowers and the purple-black berries that come later in the summer are edible. They also have medicinal qualities.

Elderberries are soft-wooded shrubs often found in ditches near roadsides, in moist woods, and in swampy areas. The plants have opposite feather-compound leaves that may be over 3 feet long. The leaf is divided into five to eleven opposite, coarsely toothed, pointed, short-stalked elliptical leaflets about 3-4 inches long. The stems have conspicuous white lenticels and there's a white corky pith inside the stems. Don't confuse red-berried elder (Sambucus pubens) with the blue/black Elderberry. Red elder is easily identified by its conical flower, fruit cluster, red berries and its orange pith. Both species have poisonous vegetative parts. For the Common Elderberry, use only the fruits and flowers. None of the Red elder is usable.

Common Elderberry (fruit)

The flowers of the Black elder are used either fresh or dried in a tea or other food recipes. For example, you can make elderberry fritters by separating the fresh flower heads into smaller sections, about 1-2" across, and dip into a flour, milk, and egg batter. Deep fry them and serve with maple syrup. The berries that ripen in August are excellent in pies, jams, jellies and for wine. The berries are pretty tart and you may not want to eat them raw, but dried they taste something like blueberries. When gathering flowers or berries, be sure to leave many on the shrub to minimize damage to the tree and surrounding habitat. Elderberry is an important food plant for a variety of birds and many mammals like deer. It is an effective pollinator attractor especially by bees during its bloom period. The berries have few calories and lots of nutrition such as large amounts of potassium and beta carotene. They also provide calcium, phosphorus and vitamin C.

Elderberry is astringent and diaphoretic — good for colds, excessive mucus and sore throat. This is useful for moving mucus out of the upper respiratory tract and for inducing sweats during a dry fever. Recent studies also indicate that Elderberry can be effective in reducing the effects of the flu. We have used a tonic of Elder berries at the first signs of the flu to effectively reduce symptoms and the length of time we are ill. I have made a mixture of the berry juice with an equal amount of raw honey to use for the flu. Elderberry also has diuretic and detoxifying properties — eating them may help one to lose weight. The flowers have been used in cosmetics from very ancient times. Elder-flower infusion is said to cleanse the skin, lightens freckles, and sooth sunburn. Through its bioflavonoids, it promotes circulation and strengthens the capillaries. Some herbalists use it to soothe children's upset stomachs and relieve gas though I think catnip tea is good for this. Among its many uses, you can boil the flowers in vinegar to make a black hair dye. Some say that Elderberry wine may have anti-arthritic properties.

As you can see, there are many uses for this special shrub. Anyone who has Elderberry shrubs on their property is truly blessed. Become familiar with this shrub so you too can enjoy its many gifts.


Published in the Spring, 2009, Michigan Land Trust Newsletter