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Considering the American Elderberry

February 1, 2012

Looking for an attractive, edible, medicinal, native, and downright intriguing shrub for your landscape, garden or farm?  Some believe the elderberry’s time has come!  The American elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis) also known as American elder, is a species of elderberry gaining notoriety as a quality landscape and garden plant as well as for its potential as a fruit for commercial production.  American elderberry is an indigenous plant that grows wild throughout most of North America.  While its medicinal qualities have been utilized for centuries, only in recent years has the American elderberry been explored for its potential as a commercial fruit. 

American elderberry is an easy-to-grow, large native shrub, reaching a height and spread of 5-12 feet.  Moist, humusy soils and full sun are optimum growing conditions but the species tolerates clay soils and grows well in average to wet conditions and in part shade.  The American elderberry’s informal, open form is often seen on roadsides and fence rows as well as in open woods, thickets, and in abandoned fields. In late spring, small white flowers bloom in large clusters (8-12 inch diameter) followed by an abundance of BB-size blue-black fruit in fall.


American elderberry’s informal beauty can be showcased in a multitude of sustainable practices on the landscape.  Due to its ability to sucker, this native plant works well massed in naturalized areas; it is effective in shrub borders, roadside plantings, wet or low areas, as a screen, or as part of an edible, native plant garden.  For more information on the use of elderberry as a landscape plant click here

In addition to being a great native landscape plant, the flowers and fruit of the American elderberry are edible and touted for medicinal qualities.  Be aware that, aside from the flowers and fruit, other parts of the plant are poisonous.  The American elderberry flowers and fruit offer ingredients for crafting wine, syrups, jellies, dyes and they provide a valuable food source for insects and birds. The dark purple berries contain vitamins A and B, and more vitamin C than oranges and they are high in antioxidants. In fact, elderberry fruits have historically been used to treat many ailments, such as respiratory problems, colds, and flu. The umbrella-shaped elderberry blossoms are also used for making delicious fritters.

Research on elderberries is being conducted at the University of Missouri’s South West Center in Mount Vernon and at the Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove.  So far, research has shown that the fruit has high levels of antioxidants, can boost immunity, can lower cholesterol and has some anti-viral properties.

Opportunities for getting to know this multi-purpose, native shrub are increasing.  Southern SAWG Conference attendees had the opportunity to visit with Terry Durham of Elderberry Life, a producer of nursery stock and elderberry products, at the Trade Show in January.  In addition, the Missouri Organic Association (MOA) Conference (Feb. 2 – 4, 2012) in St. Louis, Missouri will certainly feature opportunities for elderberry awareness and discussion.  And, currently in the development stages, the First International Elderberry Research Symposium is planned for June 9 – 14, 2013 in Columbia, Missouri.

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