Growing plants that are potentially lethal is kind of exciting. It’s like, “Don’t cross me! I could poison you with my ancient druid wisdom!” That’s how I feel about my elderberry bushes.
That being said, it would be pretty hard to secretly get someone to eat the eight or so pounds of elderberries required to take out an adult human. I’d have to settle for inducing an episode of “gastric distress”.
The beneficial qualities of the elderberry (Sambucus) are equally wondrous.
In nature, elderberry bushes grow along the edge of woodlands, streams, and ditches. They like well-drained moist soil and are somewhat shade tolerant.
The shape is of a large shrub or bush, but pruning can create more of a tree-like appearance. Left to their own devices, the elderberry bush will continue to push outwards becoming a large clump or hedgerow.
The combination of leaves, frothy flower clusters, and shiny black berry bunches makes for a stunning plant. There are colour variations in the leaves including green, yellow, and black, and the flowers can be white or pink. The blooms have a sweet, fresh scent that is popular in perfumes and cosmetics.
The elderberry is part of the honeysuckle family (Adoxaceae), and is related to another native edible, the nannyberry.
The elderberry has a place in folklore and mythology all over the world. In England, the Old Woman or Old Mother lives in the trunk of the elderberry tree, and must be respected or else she’ll exact revenge in the form of a death in the family. The way to avoid her wrath is to recite a short phrase, “Old Woman, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree.”
Germany, Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland have similar folkloric traditions. The beloved Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen, wrote about “Hyldemoer,” or Elder-mother. In the story, a young boy catches cold and is visited by an old woman that emerges from a pot of elderflower tea. She takes him on an adventure through time and space where he sees his future, and the Elder-mother turns out to be memory itself. It’s a beautiful story about nature, love, and the passage of time, and it makes me wonder if there isn’t a hallucinogenic aspect of the elder tree…
It’s weird because elderberries have so many edible aspects, but they’re also toxic. The leaves, stems, bark, flowers, berries, and roots can all be harmful if consumed incorrectly. The seeds contain something called glycoside that can transform into cyanide when they’re crushed while being eaten or processed.
Obviously we want to avoid eating cyanide, which is why we must ALWAYS cook elderberries and elderflowers. A neighbour I used to have once ate some dried elderberries sprinkled on her morning cereal and she ended up in some tummy trouble for about 24 hours. Not fun. This is because dehydrated berries still have the seeds in them. If you’re using them for fresh juice, be extremely careful not to crush any of the seeds or stems during the extraction process.
Otherwise, elderberries have some helpful, even healing, properties. There seems to be consensus on them helping speed up recovery from a cold or flu. I’ll take a shot of elderberry syrup a couple of times a day as soon as I start to feel a scratch in my throat. At the very least it tastes delicious!
In the garden realm, I love my elderberries because their flowers attract pollinators like crazy. They give a real boost to any food forest, for that reason. Not to mention the scent is gorgeous.
Speaking of flowers, they can be processed into a syrup, as well. You may be familiar with the French liqueur, St. Germain and its elegant art deco bottle. 1000 blooms go into every bottle, according to the label. The bottle is in high demand as a repurposed maple syrup vessel once the sap starts to flow.
From a growing perspective, the elderberry tree is a joy to have in the yard. It’s beautiful and almost magical looking with the huge clusters of lacy flowers. If you like bird watching, it’s a must have. It’s damn near impossible to kill with pruning, which is good because it has a tendency to sucker like crazy. In the past I’ve even cut the whole thing back to about six inches off the ground and I only lost one year of blooms/fruit.