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Practical Plants: Elderberry

Now that my spring rush is mostly over and I plan to blog more regularly, I am going to do a summer series on some less than usual plants.  Many of the plants I will be featuring are multi-use plants and therefore are ideal for the home gardener, as they may provide beauty, shade, food, medicine, mulch, livestock feed, soil nutrients, or any number of other characteristics.

First up is the Elderberry.

Ripe Elderberries, picture from Wikipedia.

Why Plant Elderberries?

I have only recently planted my first elderberry bushes, but I have been using the fruit in various ways for over a year.  The plant is useful from top to bottom- the leaves, roots, flowers, and berries call all be used medicinally.  I have used the berried in the past to both treat respiratory infections and to boost my kids' immune systems in the winter.  The berries also make fantastic jam, wine, and pie, and the flowers are used to make jelly and a syrup that can be mixed with water for a sweet beverage or made into various cocktails.  Keep in mind that the fruit must be cooked and seeds removed before cooking- otherwise the fruit is very astringent.  It also bears mentioning that the roots, branches, leaves, and seeds contain glycoside, which metabolizes into cyanide.  Before you freak out and ban this plant as poisonous, however, remember that apple seeds also contain cyanide, and unless consumed in a large amount none of the above are harmful, and the glycoside is likely what gives the leaves and roots their medicinal affect.  Just avoid using the harmful parts, or consume them in moderation and only under the guidance of an herbalist.

If you have no interest in harvesting or using the berries, elderberry bushes would make a nice addition to any landscape, as the large clusters of white flowers followed by dark blue to black fruit are attractive and valuable to birds and other wildlife.  Elder can also be planted near walnut trees as it doesn't seem to be affected by juglone that is secreted by the roots of walnut trees, so it is a valuable plant in a walnut guild.

The Basics:

Zone:  Varies by variety, but generally hardy to zone 3

Sun Exposure:  Full sun to part shade

Soil Preference:  Well drained sandy loam.  Some say they do well in swampy ground, others say they do better in well drained soil.

Spacing:  Meh...  I found anything from 6 feet a meter (just over 3 feet).  I didn't worry about spacing with mine, as I worked them into a walnut guild and wanted them to look natural, ie not in rows.  So they're planted randomly.  And even here in Minnesota, where the summers aren't scorching, I feel that they are benefiting greatly from the dappled shade provided by the walnut trees. 

Water Needs:  As with any new tree or shrub, elder needs to be watered frequently in the first two years to ensure success.  Beyond that period of time, remember that it is a shallow rooted bush, so you will need to water it during times of drought.  This would be a great bush to plant near a water source.

Fertilizer:  Mulch and compost each spring.  If you feel the need to use commercial fertilizer, apply 1/8 of a pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each year of the plant's age up to 1 lb.

Other Care Tips:  In order for good fruiting you must plant at least two different cultivars for pollination, unless you have native species nearby.  Elder can easily be propagated by cuttings, so if you know anyone or live in a place with native populations of elder you need not buy your plants, simply cut a branch while dormant and pot, then keep moist until it roots.  Do several, as it's not always 100% successful.  Depending on your climate elderberry can spread both my seed and by fallen branches rooting, so be mindful of this in your planting and management.  It is not terribly invasive in most climates, though, because of it's susceptibility to drought and general sensitivity in it's younger stage.  Elder is low maintainance and will produce a small amount of fruit the first year, gradually increasing thereafter.  The bushes benefit from dormant pruning after the second year.  Very few pests cause problems with Elder.

Useful Recipes:

Elderberry Syrup for Immune Boosting and Treating Respiratory Junk in Kids, from Everyday Paleo-  This is the recipe I use, but there are simpler ones out there.  The addition of the ginger and the cinnamon both improves the taste (not that elderberries taste bad- as long as they are cooked and sweetened, they taste great.  Which is another benefit of this concoction.  Of all the home and herbal remedies I give them, this is about the easiest to administer, because it's pretty tasty.

Elderberry Preserves with Almond from the Modern Beet-  Hopefully I'll be able to try this jam soon!

Elderberry Wine- If I ever dive into wine making this would be a welcome product.


Tree Service Queens said...

Mulch! Never forget to use mulch, its a quality way of having better soil and saving water.

-Oscar Valencia

Brandislee said...

I said mulch! It's under the fertilizer heading, because the best mulch (hardwood wood chips, grass clippings, fallen leaves) break down into the best sustained release fertilizer you could ever want.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

I planted two of them last year, very is kicking butt and getting huge,and the other is still sort of small and soon did you start getting actual flowers and berries on yours?

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