Does a shrub that’s adaptable, super-easy-to-grow and has multiple benefits to wildlife, along with culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic value for people sound too good to be true? Because it’s not!
Introducing . . . common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).
Benefits to Wildlife
Just like us, wildlife needs food, water, shelter, and a safe place to raise families. Here’s how elderberry delivers on those fronts.
The pithy stems of elderberry provide a safe place for cavity-nesting native bees to lay eggs. (Bonus: Five things you can do to increase nesting habitat for native bees.)
You’ll see elderberries surrounded by small, native bees when the shrub is in flower. Additionally, it provides perching and nesting spots for many species of birds.
Speaking of birds, wrens, orioles, song sparrows, cedar waxwings, grosbeaks, house finches, mockingbirds, thrushes, and more eagerly eat the fruits.
And more than thirty butterflies and moths (including some beautiful silk moths) lay their eggs on elderberry shrubs.
As far as additional ecosystem benefits, the dense roots are great for stabilizing slopes and streambanks.
Three Ways We Can Use Elderberries
First, how about making some delicious elderflower cordial?
I was first introduced to the concept of elderflower cordial thanks to Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home: “Cooking was stews and roast mutton and jam tarts and mixing cakes, none of which she had any intention of attempting. But concocting lovely drinks was right up her street, specially if one could gather the ingredients for free, from roadside bushes.”
Here’s a recipe for elderflower cordial, courtesy of the BBC. (One of the ingredients is caster sugar; in the U.S., just use superfine sugar. Or consider using a natural sweeter like honey or stevia to your taste.)
And don’t miss the collection of yummy-sounding recipes that include elderflower cordial as an ingredient here! (I definitely think I should be eating something called a posset. ❤️)
Second, steep a heaping teaspoon each of dried marshmallow root and dried elder flowers in a pint or so of just-boiled water for five minutes. Drape a towel over your head and enjoy the hydrating steam for ten or fifteen minutes. Follow with your favorite moisturizer to seal in the benefits. Winter-dry skin will thank you! (I’ve been loving this steam combination myself for cold-weather use.)
You can also find a recipe for a gentle skin toner (gentle enough that you could even use it to help sooth a baby’s diaper rash, according to the author) made with elder flowers, in Pure Skin Care: Nourishing Recipes for Vibrant Skin & Natural Beauty by Stephanie Tourles.
Third, because of research results that noted antiviral activity, you might have seen elderberry syrups for sale on drugstore shelves as a treatment for cold and flu. But it’s dead easy to make elderberry syrup yourself.
Way back when my kids were little, I bought a book called Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal and eagerly devoured it. (The book has since been released in paperback under the title, Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 Teas, Tonics, Oils, Salves, Tinctures, and Other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family.)
It was late October when I bought the book and, in preparation for cold and flu season, I made the Elderberry Syrup recipe, bottled it up, and refrigerated it.
My husband was driving the four of us home from somewhere one winter morning when I felt that fuzzy, buzzy, lethargic feeling that told me I was about to get (or already had) a fever. We were ten minutes from home and I remember just resting my head against the window, too crummy-feeling to sit upright.
Sure enough, when we got home and I took my temp, I had a fever. I started taking the elderberry syrup right away and went to bed. I remember spending a couple of not-so-enjoyable days sick in bed (still taking the syrup). But I also remember that being my shortest bout of the flu ever, up to that point.
An anecdotal experience, of course, but still thought I’d share. (And, of course, had I thought I needed to, I would have headed right for the doctor’s office!) 😊
Hints For Growing Elderberries
Elderberries like evenly moist soil; they don’t want to dry out. You’ll often find them growing along streams or along the roadside in floodplain areas. You’ll find them in full sun where they can keep their toes wet all the time and growing in part-shade where the soil’s a bit drier.
They naturally grow ten to twelve feet tall and wide. However, there are a couple of ways you can keep them smaller if you need to.
You can prune the entire shrub down to the ground every third or fourth winter. The drawback with this method is that if you do that, you will be without flowers and fruit the year you do your pruning. Alternatively, starting two or three years after you plant it, prune just the oldest stems down to the ground each year, late in the winter. This method takes a bit more time and care, but doesn’t interrupt flowering and fruiting.
Be aware that unless there are other elderberry shrubs growing in the neighborhood, you will need two plants (at minimum) for the shrubs to set fruit.
I love elderberries for their easy-going nature in the garden. As long as they’re not sited in dense shade or dry soil (mine are growing by a downspout), this is not a plant that needs any pampering. Plus, their all-around versatility makes them a real Swiss Army knife of a shrub. You really can’t go wrong with this one.
Bonus: Try growing native lilies with your elderberry; they enjoy similar conditions. Here’s a turks-cap lily growing in my garden, peeking out from beneath an elderberry canopy.
Where might you grow elderberries in your garden?