It is so difficult to encapsulate all of the beautiful things about this shrub. I am humbled in trying to do so. I will certainly try my best to share the most important things I’ve come to know about it, but it is my greatest goal that you feel inspired to go out there and forage, grow, and connect with Elderberry yourself.
Elderberries are enthusiastic and energetic growers that can never be tamed. They are extremely useful shrubs that act as magnets to incredible amounts of wildlife, medicine makers, foragers, wine makers, and foodies.
The relationship they have with humans is a very special one; they actually grow much longer when living among the ones who understand their nature. When they are cut to the ground when they’re dormant, they sprout back with vigour and abundance. In fact they live much longer with periodic cutting back or coppicing. Shrubs like Elderberry have evolved to expect grazing and other disturbances that actually help them to grow better and live a longer life.
The berries are extremely antioxidant rich, and are my go to medicine in the cold and flu season. I can not tell you how many times I’ve felt a cold coming on and Elderberry has kept me healthy. It has powerful immune boosting and anti-viral properties that are quickly becoming more valued among people. It’s abilities are powerful; this isn’t just a health fad, or folklore. I’ve come across many others who have experienced it’s medicine too.
They are fast to harvest if you use the right techniques. You can simply clip off the entire umbel (the stem that holds a cluster of berries) and put in a bag in the freezer once you’ve gathered all you need. Once they’ve been frozen for 30 mins you can tap the umbel or stems and the berries will fall off into your bowl. These techniques were learned through Samuel Thayers book Natures Garden. This book is invaluable to the forager, with many great tips and insights. Once you’ve gathered your berries it’s time to make wine, compote, and most importantly syrup!
How to Make Elderberry Syrup!
1 cup of Elderberries
3 cups of water
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons of ginger root
a dash of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup of honey
- Bring all of the ingredients to a simmer except the honey. Let them simmer on medium to low heat for 40 minutes.
- Let cool and strain out the berries.
- Add in 1 cup of honey and stir.
- Take a tablespoon every half an hour until cold symptoms subside, or take a shot everyday in fall throughout winter as a preventative measure for colds.
The flowers are also immune boosting and are in bloom in the hottest times of summer. Ironically, they are extremely cooling in an iced herbal tea. They are beloved by many birds and insects, and have an incredible scent. They can be tinctured, made into tea, and cooked in a batter to create a flower fritter that is so tasty.
They are rambunctious shrubs that will grow as much as 7 feet in a single season. If you need a living fence to grow fast in a relatively wet area, plant Elderberry. Even if it’s kind of shady, this shrub will thrive! Wildlife, your medicine cabinet, and pies will be more than fulfilled. Their are dozens of bird species that feed on Elderberries. They have extremely impressive berry yields; your family will have more than enough for the whole year from a few shrubs.
They’re found in wetland areas in the wild. Elderberries do the best in wet areas that aren’t completely submerged. People commonly plant them in muddy anaerobic conditions, but they truly prefer a spot that is rich in organic matter and is well draining. They will appreciate a bit of wet feet which is such a great thing because there aren’t a huge amount of food producing plants that are able to withstand these wet and shady conditions! In areas with sandy soil that drain very fast, they will be continuously wilted. Plant them on a mound in a wet area so their roots have access to the water without being completely flooded to make them the absolute happiest.
There are many different varieties; some are self pollinating and some need a pollinator. This means that the male and female reproductive organs can occur on different plants, as well as on a single plant depending on the variety. Elderberry varieties that have the male and female on separate plants will need more than one Elderberry plant for cross pollination. The wild ones still produce an incredible amount, but the cultivars produce even more. A beautiful tasting cultivar called Bob Gordon is a great one to grow. It is great to grow both the wild and the bred varieties to ensure an abundance of great genetics and environmental resilience.
Giving Back; Propagation
An incredible way to give back to this marvel of a plant is by propagating it. In propagation comes the creation of an incredible partnership you can form with these plants. They will thank you for it, and so will the land they are planted on. These are one of the easiest shrubs to propagate and there are many ways to do this. You can propagate from hardwood cuttings which are taken in the time of dormancy. This is my favourite way and it’s so simple to do. The best thing is that you can create dozens of new plants from a single Elder!
How to Propagate Hardwood Cuttings
You start by cutting stems off of a great plant that you find has great tasting fruits or other desirable traits. This could be from the wild, or from a great variety you’ve planted. Make sure there is a bud on the top of the stems you cut. You don’t need a bud on the bottom with this species! They are usually about 8 inches to a foot long. You can collect in early winter after leaves drop or early spring before buds start to emerge and swell. Collect them in a bucket with water.
Create a regular garden bed with rich soil and plunk in the cuttings. Or you can add into a large pot with rich. You want more of the cutting underground than you want above to encourage rooting. There is no need to add in root hormone. I advise against using rooting hormone in general as it is highly toxic and I’ve found that it really doesn’t make a difference anyways. If you’re convinced you need rooting hormone, dip the bottom in honey and warm water, or water that Willow cuttings have been soaking in. These will encourage root development but are not necessary for this species.
How to Propagate Softwood Cuttings
You can also propagate from softwood cuttings. This is the new growth that emerges in late spring to summer time. This is almost as easy as hardwood cuttings. These are more prone to wilting however, and are much more fragile. They should be put in a bucket of water immediately after pruning off.
You can plant them out into trays of sandy soil that are put in the shade for a 4-8 weeks. Make sure to mist them often and try to find the sweet spot between just the right amount of water without saturating them. Make sure to take almost all of the leaves off of the cutting except one or two on the top. This will promote the cutting to put more energy into the developing roots.
How to Propagate Seeds
Propagation of Elderberry is also possible from seeds. I find cuttings are a great way to go, however cuttings are asexual propagation. This simply means that cuttings are an exact clone of the plant you took the cuttings from.
This is great in many ways to preserve genetics of great Elderberries, but by planting seeds you are bringing new genetic material into the gene pool. Every one of those plants will be slightly different from the parent, with staggering bloom and harvest times. You could also end up with a superior plant that you will take cuttings from for years to come.
Planting Elderberry seeds requires some treatment before germination is to come about. You have to collect the berries when they’re quite ripe. Getting the berries when they’re ripe is important because the seeds will have a better chance to transform into a tree. Put them into a bucket.
Gently squish the ripe fruit with a potato masher in the bottom of a bucket. Prepare a garden bed for the seeds and spread the mashed up ripe berries over the top of the soil. Gently rake them into the soil and cover with a thin layer of wood chips. Watch next spring for baby elder sprouts. This way is a lot simpler and allows nature to do the work.
If you don’t have a lot of space immediately to plant the Elderberry seeds after processing, try this method:
Acquire ripe fruit and squish with potato masher in bottom of a bucket. Add water into the bucket with a garden hose. Try to get the frequency of the water relatively high as to separate the seeds from the fruit. The fruits will float to the top and the viable seeds will sink to the bottom. Once all the fruit is separated you can dry the seeds and on a fine mesh stainless steel sieve or a paper towel in a dry place for a few days.
Now comes the step when you mimic the way Nature cares for the seeds. Once the elderberry fruit is produced, the seeds go through a month or two of a warmer period and then once winter comes they experience 5 to 6 months of cold. This is called stratification of the seed. In order to act the way Nature does, after you’ve dried your seeds keep them in moderately moist sand in a container in a somewhat warm environment, about 70 degrees. After a month or so, transfer to the fridge. Keep an eye on them for mold, and sprouting.
Once spring happens and there’s no chance of frost, plant them out into a garden bed. If they sprout too early, plant them out into cell packs filled with soil until there is no danger of frost in your area.
Elderberries create opportunities in landscapes that aren’t usually sought out for growing food and medicine. They willfully and creatively expel their lively energy into these wet and shady places. Their ceaseless growth savours the many aspects of life; sun, rain, stardust, thunder, storm, with power and gratitude. They are allies and inspiration to me and to anyone who knows them.