Elderberry is a shrub for many reasons and seasons

MD-gardening-071315

Elderberries as they look now. In August or September, they will ripen and turn black. Then they will be ready for makng into jam, jelly, pies and other things. You might even cure a cold or the flu with elder.

Sometimes a plant growing in my garden so utterly charms me, in every way, that I can’t resist slipping it into the gardening column. The case becomes more compelling if the plant has looked unremarkable for several years, then suddenly flourishes.

If the plant has roots in ancient history, so much the better. And if it serves a useful purpose or two, like feeding endangered bees and curing the flu quicker than modern pharmaceuticals, in addition to doing its duty as decoration in the garden, what could be better?

Elder, also called elderberry, is a case in point. In fact, it’s such a useful and pretty shrub – or small tree, depending on what you read – that I’ll go out on a limb and say no garden should be without it.

It was my nose that alerted me to the happy news, a few weeks ago, that my two elders (it’s best to have two for pollination) were in full bloom. Until they reached a height of about five feet and probably the same number of years, mine had produced only a few flowers each summer. But this year, they bloomed in profusion, as I could have told, even blindfolded, from the heady sweet smell permeating the corners of the garden where they stand.

The flowers – flat clusters of myriad tiny blossoms similar to Queen Anne’s lace, but more substantial – stood out like saucers of cream against the plant’s deep green leaves. Elder looks spectacular from a distance, when in bloom. Later, and sometimes at the same time, the plant produces large clusters of black berries on purplish red stems. At the moment, my own elders have berries and flowers, a lovely sight.

Make wine, cure flu

European settlers in North America, where the native elder goes by the botanical name sambucus canadensis, used its berries to make jams, jellies, pies, syrup and probably alcohol. Native Americans used various parts of the shrub to make baskets and arrows, as well as to treat fever and joint pain. (I found nothing about alcohol.)

In Europe, where the native species is sambucus nigra, people have made wine from elderberries and elder flowers for centuries. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, wrote in praise of elderberries. In Medieval times, elder was believed to increase longevity.

For centuries, elderberries were used to treat colds and flu. A modern study, carried out by the American Botanical Council, found 90 percent of a group of people suffering from flu recovered in three days after consuming elderberry. This compared with six days for those not taking elderberry, according to the National Geographic Society book “Complete Guide to Herbs and Spices.”

Nowadays, makers of teas, craft beers and ale sometimes incorporate the plant into their products.

Not only humans eat elderberries and elder flowers. Insects of all sorts, including bees and butterflies, visit the blossom for nectar. Beneficial insects like dragonflies — who protect our vegetables and fruit by eating destructive bugs — use the flat flower heads as a landing strip, from which to scan the surroundings for their prey. Hummingbirds probably patronize elder flowers, too.
To get a good view of pollinators in action, I recommend standing by an elder blossom that grows at eye level and observing who arrives for a meal.

Birds savor the berries. The fruit of the American elder (also known as common elder) is “the preferred food” of eastern bluebirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, rufous-sided towhees and the veery, according to the “Wetland Planting Guide for the Northeastern United States,” published by Environmental Concern, Inc. The shrub offers cover and nesting places, as well as sustenance, to those and many other types of birds.

In fact, 48 species of birds, including songbirds, consume the berries, as do other forms of wildlife, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service book “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping/Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”  For a birdwatcher and/or lover of wildlife, elder is the plant to grow in your garden.

Native and European elders, which will both reach six to 12 feet tall and wide, flower from June through July and fruit from August through September (mine must be precocious).  In Fall, the shrubs’ leaves turn yellow and pale green before falling off.

The plants thrive in sun or shade – even total shade, although they will flower less there. They grow in moist woods, wet meadows, old fields and the edge of wetlands, but will stand up to drought, provided they are at least a year old at the time.

Elder will grow by brackish marshes

While not fussy about soil, elders prefer silt loam with a pH (acidity versus alkalinity) of 6.5. Of particular interest to Dorchester County gardeners, they will tolerate some flooding by fresh or brackish water. They grow quickly — about two feet per year – and do well in disturbed sites, city or countryside.

Elder is said to improve compost when growing beside a compost heap. It helps fermentation and forms fine humus around the roots. The plant also repels some animals, such as moles (try putting some elder twigs in their tunnels to get rid of them), and some bad insects. Try raking elder leaves across a seedbed after sowing.

It would be wrong not to include the information that some people fault elder for growing too aggressively. Some even slander it as a weed. But one can always cut out new shoots – and transplant them, if desired. As for the W word, one can only hope that knowledge about this amazing plant will open their eyes.

An important point: If you plan to use the berries, bear in mind that an elder will not bear fruit before it reaches four years old. And plant American elder (sambucus Canadensis), European elder (sambucus nigra) or blueberry elder (sambucus caerulea), which incidentally can grow 50 feet tall. The berries of some other species of elder are poisonous, for example sambucus ebulus. Stay away from that one.

In the meantime, happy gardening!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener from Dorchester County.

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