The American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a native shrub to Illinois and much of eastern North America. Despite its weedy habit, often growing in natural areas and unmowed ditches, this plant has some remarkable features. It offers both natural beauty and utility as well as easy propagation and adaption to a wide range of sites.
Elderberry naturally occurs along streambanks, forest edges, thickets, ditches, and fencerows. It is a deciduous shrub that spreads primarily from root suckering to form thickets, making it a tough competitor in nature and doubling as an excellent hedge-forming bush in more managed landscapes. In our area, the fragrant, showy white flowers emerge in late spring and persist into early summer. On healthy plants in full sun, the whole plant is often covered with blooms. These beautiful, umbrella-shaped flowers persist for up to four weeks followed by the development of large clusters of attractive purple drupes, or berries. The juicy, sweet, and tart berries become ripe in August and are a source of food for many species of birds and insects, as well as some small mammals.
The elderberry is easily propagated from roots, berries or dormant cuttings. I have had very good luck with dormant cuttings, seeing moderate success from methods as simple as directly planting cuttings in the ground during late winter. It is difficult to find sites that will not host the elderberry as it is adapted to a wide variety of site conditions. However it prefers moist, well-drained soils of moderate fertility, making it a frequent understory species throughout Midwestern riparian forests.
Historically, elderberry plants have been widely used by humans for millennia. Its close cousin, the European elder (Sambucus nigra) was employed for a variety of uses across Eurasia. Ancient Greeks made musical instruments from elderberry wood called “sambuke”, which is inspiration for the genus name, “Sambucus.” The “father of medicine” himself, Hippocrates, is noted to have promoted the medicinal use of elderberry. In fact, elderberry based medications have been found as far back as Ancient Egypt. Native Americans used our indigenous elderberry’s stems for everything from arrows, flutes and whistles, to taps for gathering maple sap.
As a medicinal plant, the elderberry has been touted to cure everything from the plague to colds, flu, fever, burns and cuts. Native Americans used the plant widely for great variety of uses, employing nearly all parts of the plant from the inner bark to the berries, leaves and twigs. It was used topically for reducing swelling, stopping bleeding and treating boils. Tea from the inner bark was ingested as a strong laxative or diuretic. The leaves and bark were applied topically to reduce swelling, stop bleeding and treat boils among many other uses.
In modern times, there are a great number of commercial claims to the medicinal qualities of elderberry. To date, few of these claims have been scientifically verified, although modern medicine has focused less on the elderberry than our ancestors. Some evidence does suggest a measurable effect when treating flu and allergies. It is noted as an immune system booster with higher vitamin C levels than oranges. In addition, the berries are packing with anti-oxidants called antocyanins, which give the berries their beautiful purple color.
Although the medical qualities of the elderberry may be mysterious, the culinary uses today are wide ranging. Care must be taken when harvesting elderberry plant parts because the unripe berries, leaves and twigs are considered poisonous. However, both the flowers and ripe berries are edible. Elderberry flowers have been used in baked goods and for extracts. They can be dried and used to make tea or blended with other teas. The berries themselves are commonly used for jam, jelly, pie, syrup and wine. Elderberry juice is used to enhance wine and add coloring to other fruit juices.
The elderberry, with its hardiness and versatility, is undoubtedly an underused native plant. I have seen it as the highlighted specimen of formal gardens and as the dominant plant in difficult to maintain natural areas such as the forest edge. I highly recommend the elderberry for your next garden addition!