Elderberries: In the wild and in your landscape

This time of year, native elderberries really stand out in Missoula County with their fragrant delicate flowers in full bloom. You might have seen them along roadsides, trails or maybe in your own backyard! Our native blue elderberry, Sambucus cerulea, grows in diverse habitats from mountains, hills, valleys, open woodlands and forests. However, riparian zones are among the favorite spots due to the preferred abundant soil moisture.

These shrubs can grow to a height of about six to sixteen feet making them excellent hedges and windbreaks. The white clusters of flowers, known as cymes, bloom in the summer and are abuzz with insects. Later in the season, the beautiful gray-blue berries ripen which birds surely appreciate. 

Not only do elderberries offer flowers and fruit for wildlife but the history of using this plant medicinally is extensive as the famed "Father of Medicine" Hippocrates praised elderberry's healing properties. Today, elderberry is still well known as a medicinal plant and scientific research has proven these facts to be true.

Elderberry is recognized for the high antioxidant, polyphenol and flavonoid content. In fact, elderberries have more antioxidants than blueberries or cranberries, two fruits praised for their high antioxidant content. During cold and flu season, elderberry juices, syrups, lozenges, herbal teas, extracts and supplements can help you towards a speedy recovery or act as a preventative while strengthening your immune system.

Other health benefits associated with the berries include reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It is important to note that elderberries must be heated up and processed to remove the naturally occurring chemicals, lectin and cyanide. These chemicals are found in small amounts in the bark and the unripe berries and seeds. Luckily, these substances can be safely removed by cooking. Just be sure branches, bark and leaves are not used in cooking or juicing.

The berries are not the only medicinal part of the plant. Elderflowers can also be harvested and dried to make fragrant teas, baked goods and the extract can be infused into lotions and other potions offering additional protection during the cold and flu season. 

Ornamental cultivars of elderberry have been developed to really stand out in the landscape with interesting colors and shapes of foliage and flowers as well as different growth habits and sizes. Foliage ranging in color from black, chartreuse and variegated are now commonly found at garden centers and nurseries. Some of my favorites include 'Lemony Lace,' 'Instant Karma' and 'Black Beauty.' If you want fruit from your ornamental elderberry, you will need to plant more than one so they can cross pollinate.

While wild elderberries are great to forage, new varieties of different species (S. canadensis and S. nigra) have been bred to improve fruit flavor and are being researched at the MSU Western Agricultural Research Center (WARC) in Corvallis, Mont. Among the varieties trialed, 'Bob Gordon,' 'Ranch' and 'Adams' have had the greatest yields.

Other unique cold hardy berries researched at the WARC include aronia, haskaps, dwarf sour cherries, saskatoons (serviceberries) and currents. If you are curious about some of these cold hardy berries and wonder what they might taste like, the WARC hosts an annual field day for growers and the general public to learn about current research, tour the research station and sample crops and value-added products made from the fruits grown during the free field day BBQ. This year's field day will be held on July 25 starting at 4:30 p.m. located at 580 Quast Lane Corvallis, MT 59828.


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