It is June and one of my favorite “weeds” is out in full force. This weed is one that elsewhere in the world people pay money for and order from fruit tree suppliers, garden centers, and nurseries. We are lucky that elderberry (Sambucus nigra) grows freely in our area and fruits and flowers year-round (more on why this is exciting later!). Check any empty lot or unused corner of property in the area, chances are good that this useful herbaceous plant is making a foray there.
Elderberry grows as a shrub or tree in the southern regions of its range; however, it will grow “up north” as a shorter/scrubby shrub. The range for North America extends from Zone 3 to 10. In our area, 6-9 feet in height is average. They are perennial and return even after they have been mown or cut back. The shoots are green and tender, hardening into a thin brown bark with maturity. Leaves are serrated, pinnate, and arranged in an opposite pattern. The flowers appear year-round in the New Orleans area, but more prolifically in April-August. They are formed into umbels, with small white, five petaled flowers. Small deep purple berries form in the umbels and can be harvested in clusters. The genus Sambucus occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, and it is widely grown for a variety of uses. Elderberry is regarded as both a pesty weed and a fruit producing wild edible in our area.
As a weed, elderberry spreads via an extensive root system which can send up suckers in favorable growing areas. The seeds of the elderberry fruit are often eaten as a food source by birds and other wildlife, who then distribute the seed in their excrement. New elderberries germinate from these seeds easily. They have a tendency to thrive on fence rows, between houses, and on empty lots. To control them, young elderberries can be dug and transplanted or discarded. Larger, woody elderberry plants can be cut back and a little triclopyr (sold as brush and stump killer) or metsulfuron methyl can be applied to the wound to translocate and kill the extensive root system. All-purpose weed killers like glyphosate usually take several applications to kill an elderberry, especially older established stands.
Elderberry is a widely cultivated food and medicinal crop. Many large-fruited cultivars are in the nursery trade and available. These cultivars have been selected for larger sized fruits, larger clusters of fruit, and flavor. American elderberries are reputed to be slightly sweeter than European cultivars. ‘Adams’, ‘John’, ‘Nova’, ‘Wildewood’, ‘Bob Gordon’ and ‘York’ all grow well in orchards or gardens. The wild, uncultivated elderberry frequently found out there is also very productive. Elderberry can be transplanted, grown from seed, and propagated from softwood cuttings. Plant in full to partial shade. Elderberry enjoys rich soils that drain well but will tolerate heavier soils with poor drainage. They have few pest or disease issues worth noting.
Lately there’s been a lot of buzz about growing elderberry in home orchards, wildlife gardens, and permaculture/food forest systems. As far as fruit trees go, it’s hard to find one that’s lower maintenance than elderberry for our area. It quite literally “grows like a weed”. It has tremendous value as a wildlife plant. Many of our migratory birds enjoy eating the fruit. Bluebirds, indigo buntings, cardinals, grosbeaks, blue jays, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, finches, and kingbirds have all been observed eating the fruits. Opossums, raccoons, and even Louisiana black bears (our official state mammal) will chow down on the berries. Several species of moths utilize elderberry as a host plant. Bees and other insect pollinators enjoy collecting pollen and nectar from the prolific blooms.
Humans have also made good use of the elderberry plant for many generations. The hollow stems can be used as blowguns, to make toy flutes, as straws, and to blow the coals of a fire. The flowers are edible and can be dipped in a simple sweet batter (I make a French crepe batter and use that) and fried. They are wonderful with elderberry syrup, made from the berries stewed down in sugar. The flowers are also used to make elderflower liqueur, including the well-known brand St-Germain. You can make your own by packing a mason jar with the fresh or dried elderflowers, I’ve included the recipe below.
Elderberry is used to make jams and jellies, pies, dried berries for baking, simple syrup, wine, and even dietary or medicinal supplements. Elderberry is being studied for its traditional uses in medicinal applications, however there is little current research to back up claims of efficacy as a medicine. It remains popular in many holistic and traditional healing cultures, especially as a cold and flu remedy. Be sure to do your research before consuming elderberry as it may interfere with certain medications and pregnancy.
Elderberries are out in force right now, with blooms and fruits available for foraging. Be sure to harvest away from any roadways and avoid trespassing. They are easily found throughout the city, including in parks and neighborhoods. This is one foraged food that I never feel bad about stripping bare. Our long growing season means they will fruit and flower again, often more prolifically. Many recipes are available online for making cocktails with the liqueur, lemonade, jelly, and more. This is one useful “weed” to keep on the lookout for in the New Orleans area.
Homemade Elderflower St-Germain Liqueur
Quart mason jar with lid
750 ml good quality vodka
4-5 oz fresh or dried elderflowers
Choose elderflowers free of insects or brown/dead sections. Clip the stems off, leaving the smaller stems and flowers intact in small clusters. Place in a clean mason jar and cover with the vodka. Label your jar with the date. Store in a cool, dark place for 2-4 weeks. Strain mixture through a cheesecloth, discard the steeped elderflowers. Use the liqueur in cocktails such as a French 77, French gimlet, champagne cocktail, or white cosmo. The flavor is light and makes a good summery drink.