The black elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) grows prolifically as a shrub, developing over several seasons into an attractive, shiny-leafed tree bearing lacy, white flower clusters. These clusters later bring forth an abundance of small, shiny, black elderberries, attached to umbrella-like panicles spreading up to 6 inches across. Established elderberry plants may contain many panicles, whereas a young plant may not bear fruit until its second year of life.
Elderberry flowers appear between the end of May to the beginning of June on panicles or canopy-like sprays. At this point, the flowers may be carefully harvested and made into fritters by dipping the delicate flower heads into a light batter and frying. Tea may be made from the flowers, or your harvest may be made into elder-flower wine. After the flowers die, they are replaced with tiny, green berries which eventually ripen, turning plump and black.
After harvesting the elderberries, culinary uses may include elderberry syrup, juice, elderberry jam and jelly, elderberry and elder-flower wines, and fried elder-flowers. Medicinal uses for elder-flowers include remedies for the relief of fevers and the common cold, and as an expectorant for bronchitis. Elderberries are often incorporated into natural remedies for relief from neuralgia, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and inflammatory ailments and for diabetes. Elderberries assist in weight loss and are often used as a diuretic.
The elderberry shrub is a member of the honeysuckle species growing to a height of 13 feet. Shiny, pointed, dark-green, serrated leaves 3-4 inches long appear on long stems, the back of the leaf being lighter in color than the front. Up to 11 leaves grow opposite each other on these long stems. The young elderberry shrub is often mistaken for poison sumac because its primary leaves are flattened like those of poison sumac.
Panicles containing small cream-colored buds develop into white blossoms. After the blossoms die, they are replaced by tiny, green berries (which should not be eaten, as they are toxic). The immature berries ripen in mid-summer to early fall. The ripe elderberries look similar in appearance to the blackcurrant and are full of juice, weighing down the laden branches.
Elderberries are harvested by picking the entire panicle and laying them gently in a wide basket to prevent crushing. Once you are home the berries may be removed from the panicles with a dinner fork. The stems must be removed; this process is extremely labor-intensive, but the end product is worth the time invested. Once the berries are loose, a gentle rinse under cold, running water removes debris and stray bugs. The berries are then ready to process into your favorite product.
Elderberries grow all over the United States, except Alaska. They thrive in warm, moist climates and are easily propagated, sometimes just by scattering the berries. Care must be taken to prune elderberry shrubs and to remove suckers and seedlings, as this shrub may take over your entire yard.