Elderberry Cultivation and Recipes

Elderberries are highly adaptable, hardy to Zone 4, and can be found across much of the United States and into Canada. Related varieties are found in Europe, as well. While you will find the plant growing in damp ditches and along roadsides, it will grow in average garden soil, as well. Plants thrive in both full sun and part shade.

One of the nation’s largest commercial elderberry farms is just outside Hartsburg, MO. Owner Terry Durham grows more than 37 acres of elderberries on his Missouri River bottomland and sells to processors who turn the berries into syrups and tinctures. Part of his production is made into jellies, juice and syrup, as well as elderberry cuttings from his selected varieties, which he markets from his Elderberry Life Farm (riverhillsharvest.com). 

Medicinally, elderberry has a reputation in treating bruises, skin conditions, headaches, flu, sore throat and coughing. Hippocrates is quoted as having said the elderberry bush was his “medicine chest.” The extract, sold commercially as Sambucus Extract is claimed to lower cholesterol, due to the plant’s claimed antioxidant activities, although  much more research needs to be conducted. A few studies have suggested that elderberry may be helpful in treating bacterial sinus infections and bronchitis. Some studies suggest 1 tablespoon of elderberry syrup four times a day is helpful in fighting the flu. Elderberry lozenges, combined with zinc, are also said to be helpful once a cold begins.

Never eat or drink any product made from raw elderberry fruit, flowers or leaves. All parts of the plant are sometimes listed as poisonous.  (Note: while some references list raw elderberry as poisonous, it is due to the potential for vomiting and nausea. I have tasted not-ripe berries many times without any negative effects. While I don’t recommend doing that, the berries are not a serious poison unless lots were eaten, and that is prevented by the fact they simply taste awful; you would not mistakenly eat more than one).

For those who have an allergy to elderberry pollen, taking elderberry supplements may cause a negative reaction. For those with diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, consult a doctor before taking elderberry supplements. Additionally, elderberry supplements could interact with chemotherapy in cancer treatment, or cause problems for those who are on immuno-suppressant drugs or diuretics. Elderberry is also not recommended for children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

In the Landscape
Elderberry is an excellent addition to the edible landscape. Grown at the back of the garden or even as a specimen plant in the yard, the masses of white flowers are a delight. The flowers bloom in clusters, often 12-16 inches across that attract a wide variety of butterflies and pollinating bees. Clusters of blue-black berries follow and often the plant will have both flowers and berries at the same time for many weeks. Birds also like the ripe berries and may get to them before the gardener does, but because the berries are produced in such profusion, there’s usually enough for all.

You can easily make your own elderberry syrup to use for pancakes, or for treating a cold or flu. It’s a tasty, fruity syrup for adding to water over ice for a summer drink, or a couple of teaspoons added to a cup of hot water makes a delicious winter drink, too. Note: the berries freeze well for use later.

Elderberry Syrup
1 1/2 cups freshly-picked berries (or substitute 3/4 cup dried organic berries)
3 1/4 cups water
1 1/4 cups honey - raw, local honey if available
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
3-4 whole cloves
1 large piece candied ginger (or substitute 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger)

1 - Combine everything but the honey and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and slowly simmer for about 25 minutes.
2 - Using a potato masher, crush the berries and set aside to cool for several hours.
3 - Strain, discarding solids, then add the honey and mix to dissolve.
This makes approximately 4 cups of syrup and can be stored in the refrigerator for about 8 weeks. This can also be frozen in ice cube trays for longer storage and taken out as needed.

Elderberry tincture from the store is made with alcohol, which is the accepted method of preserving most tinctures. You can also make a non-alcohol based tincture using this recipe.

Elderberry Tincture with Glycerin

Vegetable glycerin is available at many health foods stores.

1 cup vegetable glycerin
1 cup water
1/2 pound dried elderberries

1 - Place the dried elderberries in a quart glass jar and pour the glycerin over the berries. Place a lid on the jar and keep it in a cool, dark place such as the pantry for 6 weeks. Gently shake the jar daily to keep the berries from settling.
2 - Strain the mixture through a colander or cheesecloth, squeezing out all of the liquid from the berries. This can be stored in the pantry in an air-tight container, or in the refrigerator, for 5-6 months. It makes about 2 cups. Most people use 4 teaspoons daily at the first signs of cold or flu.

Pense Nursery
Mountainburg, AR
pensenursery.net; (479) 369-2494

Elderberry Varieties from Cuttings:
River Hills Harvest,
Hartville, MO
Terry Durham (573) 999-3034

Dried elderberries:
Mountain Rose Herbs; mountainroseherbs.com
Horizon Herbs; horizonherbs.com

Elder Cream Organic Skin Salve
Evening Shade Farm, Osceola, MO
Cindy Parker: (417) 282-6985