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The Incredible Edible Elderberry

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

I have always loved elderberries. As a kid there was an elderberry bush outside my bedroom window. I waited patiently each summer for the first berry clusters to ripen. I'd eat them right off the plant whenever I walked or mowed past the delicious, though tart, fruit.

This fall we removed a burning bush from our yard because it was overgrown and terribly invasive (new seedlings are everywhere!). I replaced it with a Black Lace elderberry and two different ninebark shrubs (I'll write about those next week).

Two different types of elderberries are typically grown here. The most common is the American elder (Sambucus canadensis), which is found along roadways, in ditches, and along woodlands. It grows very well in our dry, hot summers. This plant grows 8 to 10 feet tall and wide, and can be a bit scraggly unless kept under control. The 5 to 12 inch creamy white flowers in June and July are followed by tasty ¼ inch purple-black fruit in August and September.

The American elder is closely related to the European elder (Sambucus nigra). In fact, the Royal Horticultural Society currently lists American elder as Sambucus nigra var. canadensis. So for those who grow only native plants, the jury is still out on just where they both originate from.

The Black Lace elderberry that I planted is a cultivar of the European elder (Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace') that grows 6 to 8 feet tall. Its showy pink and white June flowers provide a nice contrast to the exceptionally lacey, dark purple foliage. Proven Winners touts it as an exceptional addition to the landscape, but I am a bit concerned that it might struggle in our hot, dry summers. I'll let you know how it does in my yard next summer.

Elderberries sucker and spread and therefore work best when used in naturalized landscapes. This versatile plant also works well in in shrub borders, roadside plantings, as a screen, in edible landscapes, to attract wildlife, or as part of a native plant garden.

I hope to harvest fruit from my new Black Lace elderberry and the other American elders that grow on our property. Fruit are most often used to make preserves, jellies, pies, and syrup. My mom made a delicious elderberry jam, which was amazing on her homemade biscuits.

The best-known culinary uses of elderberries are the many delightful drinks that can be made from them, including wine, craft beer, cordials, and syrups. Elton John, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones, and even Prince make reference to elderberry wine in their songs.

Finally, a word of caution that you might find this plant on some poisonous plant lists. Stick with eating only elder flowers and fruit because other parts, especially the roots, can be quite poisonous.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.