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Elderberries: The Forgotten Survival Fruit

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Elderberries don’t get much billing in modern gardens, but these attractive plants were common fixtures in early American gardens. In fact, elderberries were so common a century ago that early settlers viewed them as ditch weeds. Several varieties are native to the United States. Your great grandmother might have used the purple or black berries to flavor wine, pies, or jellies. Native Americans used them medicinally, and in recent years, researchers have confirmed their nutritional and medicinal value.

Elderberries contain more vitamin C than oranges, along with a hefty dose of antioxidants and vitamin A. In one clinical study, participants who took a standardized elderberry extract recovered from the flu three days faster than those who did not, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Elderberry extract also appears to relieve nasal congestion and can reduce symptoms of bacterial sinusitis.

Whether you’re interested in elderberries as a food crop, for its medicinal value, or both, these humble plants are adaptable to almost any growing condition and require little maintenance. They’re hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9 and begin bearing fruit within two to three years.

Planting Tips

Plant elderberries in early spring from bare root plants or potted nursery plants. They are also easily propagated by soft or hard wood cuttings. The two most common types of elderberries are the American elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) and the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra). The American elderberry grows wild throughout many parts of the U.S. This plant grows six to twelve feet tall and blooms in late spring. The European elderberry is usually taller than its American cousin and blooms earlier in the spring. It is less cold-hardy than the American variety and generally produces less fruit. If you live in the north, opt for an American variety. A closely related plant, the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosis), produces poisonous red berries.

Plant two selections spaced twelve to fifteen feet apart for heaviest fruiting. Pair “Adams” with “Johns,” or “York” with “Nova.” All of these selections are American varieties, known for their high quality fruit and heavy harvests.

Plant elderberry plants in full sun. Although the plants tolerate a wide variety of soil types, they grow best in slightly acidic soil that is well-draining. They don’t tolerate heavy clay soils. Amend the soil with compost, manure, and peat moss before planting.

Keep the soil evenly moist, especially during the first growing season as the roots become established. Fertilize the shrubs with a shovelful of manure or an all-purpose fertilizer in early spring as new growth emerges.

New Natural Fertilizer Doubles Garden Production…

Elderberries have shallow roots, and young plants don’t compete well with weeds. Mulch the plantings with wood chips or straw and carefully pull any weeds. As the shrubs get older, their foliage shades the ground and prevents most weed growth.

Elderberries spread quickly through new canes. Fruit bears most heavily on canes that are two to three years old. To keep your planting healthy, prune the shrubs every winter to remove any canes that are older than three years. Prune out canes that rub against each other, as well as those that are dead.

Pests and Diseases

Elderberries, like most native plants, suffer few insect and disease problems. Borers occasionally infest old elderberry canes, but that can be controlled through annual pruning. In wet, humid weather, you might notice leaf spots or other fungal diseases, but these problems are rarely serious.


Elderberries ripen in late summer to fall. Mature berries are deep purple to black and form in dense clusters. Pick the berries by hand or use scissors to snip off the clusters and strip the fruit.  A healthy plant might produce ten to fifteen pounds of fruit. One of your biggest challenges in growing elderberries is beating the birds and squirrels to the ripening fruit. Stretch a net over the shrubs when berries start to form to thwart wildlife, or grow enough to share.


Raw elderberries have a bitter, astringent flavor and can cause diarrhea and indigestion if eaten in large quantities. Cook them, though, and they become sweet, mild, and earthy. Once you’ve harvested the elderberries, refrigerate them and process them as quickly as possible. They don’t store well and should be used within twenty-four hours. Below are two recipes for using elderberries.

Elderberry Tincture

Try this tincture the next time you feel a cold coming on. Add a teaspoon of the tincture to a glass of water, juice, or tea four times per day. This tincture can ward off the cold altogether or reduce its duration.

  • ½ pound elderberries, washed and cleaned
  • 1 quart vodka

Place the elderberries in a glass jar or pitcher and pour the vodka over them. Place the container in a warm, dry location and allow it to sit for up to two months. Strain the vodka and discard the berries (or feed them to the chickens). Store the tincture in a dark cupboard in a covered jar or bottle.

Pancake Syrup

For a midwinter treat, pour this sweet, flavorful syrup over stacks of pancakes or piles of French toast. In summer, try it atop vanilla ice cream.

  • 8 pounds ripe elderberries, picked over and washed
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons pectin
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 8 cups sugar

Place the ripe fruit in a large stockpot and add one to two cups water. Cover and bring the fruit to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for thirty-five to forty-five minutes. Line a colander with a piece of cheesecloth and strain the fruit through the colander, reserving the juice. Allow the fruit to drain for several hours. Press down on it occasionally with a potato masher or gather up the cheesecloth and squeeze it. You should have almost a gallon of juice.

Pour the reserved juice into a stockpot and stir in the pectin and butter. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Stir in the sugar and boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Pour the syrup into heated jars and then seal and process in a water-bath canner for fifteen minutes.

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