- Author: Melissa Berg, Master Gardener
While elders provide habitat for the valley elderberry longhorn beetle in Northern California, the berries are a significant food source for birds and the plant itself acts as sustenance for a host of native butterflies and moth species. It is vital to note that while any number of animals use the elder and its berries during their life cycles, the plant leaves, flowers, and fruit, if consumed in their raw state, are toxic to humans.
Sambucus enjoys worldwide geographical distribution as well as morphological diversity which previously led to the identification of 30+ recognized species. It was, however, Bolli's 1994 published dissertation which dramatically reduced that number to just nine. The following four Elderberry plants are most often found and/or cultivated in the United States:
- American elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)
- European or black elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
- Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemona var. racemona)
- Blue Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana or Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea)
Sambucus racemona berries contain the highest concentration of cyanogenic glycosides making them the most toxic of all the elders. Native northwest cultures cooked these red elderberries to use in syrup, jam, and medicinal applications for millennia. This elder is primarily planted as an ornamental and available varieties include the “Black Lace,” “Lemon Lace,” and “Lemony Lace” plants as well as “Sutherland Gold.” Expect these varieties to be slightly smaller than canadensis at maturity, but with brightly colored foliage in keeping with their individual variety.
Care should be taken to plant elder either in early spring or fall in a spot with at least six hours of sun and allowing for an abundant spread and ten-foot height. Ensure your hole is at least two feet deep and three feet wide. Add organic compost as soil back into the hole to fill after planting, adding more compost annually thereafter. Elders enjoy nitrogen rich loamy soil and lots of water (which is why elders are most often found lining the banks of canals and waterways where it may enjoy as much water and Nature can provide). Healthy Elder roots are white to cream colored and some may even have a slightly fuzzy appearance. Be sure to rough
If you prefer a potted plant, it will do well if said pot is heavy bottomed, two feet high and equally wide because it is a large shrub in maturity and can topple a lightweight pot. Planting in pots does not differ from in ground.
For centuries, the elder has been considered a highly useful plant and as such, several species are both commercially and privately cultivated worldwide for industrial, culinary, and medicinal uses. Indeed, there is even significant folklore that varies by region and includes the belief that the trees have a sacred component which wards off evil and provides protection from witches. Elderberries have even found their way into the modern era including central appearances in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Elder Wand and “Elderberry Wine” by Elton John. Not only is the elder a pivotal figure across entertainment mediums, but its place within the culinary arena was also cemented by the choice of a Lemon Elderflower Cake from Violet Bakery for Prince Harry and Megan Markle's 2018 royal nuptials.
Commercially one can find the hollow elder twigs used as piles - the small wooden peg used to broach/tap maple trees. Not only that, but the elder pith is also often used by watchmakers for cleaning tools before commencing intricate work. Textile and weaving practices use a number of colors derived from various elders which are subsequently used to create dyes (blue, red, and deep black) for both cloth and basket reeds. Finally, teas, essence, extract(s) for syrups, and supplements are all consumed worldwide for their highly touted health benefits.
Most recently, a number of government sponsored and private studies have been undertaken to determine efficacy in the administration of herbal remedies such as elderberry syrup to aid immunity as well as elderberry supplements and teas as an adjunct in both lessening the adverse effects of viral pathogens such as COVID-19, MERSA in hospital settings and even the “common” form of influenza. The WHO and EMA already list Elderberry as a therapeutic adjuvant symptomatic therapy for is respiratory relief and strengthening properties so it's not surprising the NIH published a study in September of 2020 that found elderberry to be part of a very small group of herbal medicines found to have positive effects on early stages of influenza including COVID-19. Furthermore, a separate 2019 University study found that not only do the phytochemical compounds contained in Elderberry juices work to keep healthy cells from being infected, but they were also even more effective at inhibiting viral propagation in the later stages of the influenza cycle when cells were already infected (Drs. Deghani, Valtchez and Torabian, University of Sydney). It is worth noting that the phytochemical compounds and anthocyans found in Sambucus nigra canadensis are far more abundant that those found in European elderberry.
Thus, not only is the elder plant something of a hot commodity within the commercial world, but it is equally valuable to the individual gardener when considering that this beautiful ornamental shrub with showy foliage and flowers will be at home whether potted or planted in ground.