Elderberries: An edible landscape plant

Elderberries can be used in your landscape and provide you with an interesting tasteful fruit to use.

Elderberries are a native plant that flowers in the summer and produces tasty fruits for jams, jellies and pies. The dried blossoms are used in tea blends. Not only people but birds also love the tiny ripe berries. Butterflies are also attracted to the delicate white flowers of the elderberry plants.

Elderberries grow to a height of about six- to 16-feet, depending on the growing conditions. Each bush puts up many canes that flower and fruit, primarily in their second and third years. The tiny elderberries generally become ripe in late August.

Elderberries can be found in the wild or in beautifully landscaped lawns, they make a tall hedge or windscreen. They have large flat clusters of white blossoms in the summer and bunches of gray-blue or purplish-black berries in the early fall.

The common elderberry, Sambucus Canadensis, is often seen growing in low-lying areas where soil moisture is plentiful. The elderberry has been involved in history for hundreds of years. The generic name “Sambucus” may come from a Greek word meaning “a musical instrument made from elderberry wood.”

Elderberry shrubs contain cyanogenic glucosides, substances that release cyanide, found primarily in the leaves, stems and roots. Children in years past cut young branches from the elderberry and poked out the cottony-center to leave a rough tube, perfect for whistles and blow-guns. Children would sometimes get sick from holding the elderberry branches in their mouths. Ripe, cooked berries are harmless. Try adding one cup of elderberries to pear or apple pie filling for a nice change.

Michigan State University Extension suggests using fresh elderberries for homemade desserts such as pies and cobblers. They can also be preserved for those cold winter months by canning them whole, as juice, syrup or as jelly.

There are wild elderberry plants and new varieties that have improved fruit flavor. A number of elderberry varieties have been developed for their ornamental value rather than their berries. Foliage may be chartreuse, lime green or variegated with green and cream or silver. Some varieties are also available that have bright red berries instead of the common black fruits.

Whether you want elderberry plants for the unique fruit that they produce or for your landscape, it is a good choice and not one that everyone has!