Arbor Gate's Picks
of the Month


December 9, 2016 Back to Picks >

This year the International Herb Society has decided to ‘go big’ and select a wonderful multi-use, flavorful tree-that-can-be-a-shrub the venerable elderberry. The berries and flowers were used in a host of folk medicines. The bruised leaves are said to deter flies. The wood is easily cut and polished to make various household articles. Once the pith is removed from the stems children can transform them into pop-guns, pea shooters, and flutes. And of course who could forget elderberry wine, a favorite home brew of country folk in times past?

Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) is a family of large perennial shrubs that can be pruned to form a small tree. The most common one in our region is the native elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). When colonists first arrived in the New World, they brought with them the elderberry from home (S. nigra), a fruiting bush used in Europe for centuries. Here they found the native elderberry mentioned above. Later settlers discovered other species as they moved south and west � the Mexican elder (S. mexicana) in the Sonoran Desert, the velvet elder (S. velutina) in the more temperate parts of the Southwest, and the Florida elder (S. simsonii) in the southern Gulf region.

All elderberries produce clusters of small white flowers in spring. By late summer these turn into delicious purple-black berries. If you want to eat them you have to be quick to harvest or hungry birds will beat you to it. The berries are high in Vitamin C and can be eaten raw as you would other fresh berries or made into jams and wines.

This is one ‘herb’ that requires a lot of space in the garden. The arching branches can reach 12 feet high and nearly as wide but can be kept trimmed to a more manageable size. Plant it in full sun to part shade. Don�t position it as a specimen plant as it is not particularly beautiful in shape. Instead plant it in the background or as a hedgerow where its mass can do the most good in the overall view. If you have a spot where the soil is often moist, elderberry will thrive and become somewhat invasive so plan on some sharp pruning at least once a year.