Originally uploaded by Smoobs
We put in two elderberry plants last year as a productive replacement for a long patch of forsythia. The forsythia had the added benefit of providing a screen for a not terribly attractive lot next door, but the elderberries will do that too once they've grown for a few more years. We've just added a couple more this year.
Elderberries produce best when they have another variety with which to cross-pollinate. Sadly, one of the two plants we purchased last year looks to have died, but come back from the rootstock. This meant we had two plants, but only one of a known variety. We decided to let the rootstock live, but to add one plant of a variety we know to differ from last year's variety that lived. So we got a 'goodbarn' elderberry from Fedco this year to go with the 'Johns' that clearly survived from last year. But we still have space for one or two more elderberries. So when farming friend offered to let us dig up some of the wild elderberries on her property, we decided to take her up on it.
On Saturday we got two of her wild elderberries. Her husband informed us that the fruits of these wild plants are very small; about the size of BB gun pellets. If I only had such wild fruits to look forward to, that would be rather discouraging. However, I was delighted. Because you see, the fruits are not the only thing worth harvesting from an elderberry plant. The blossoms themselves are renowned for their delicate flavor and aroma. I've had elderflower syrups and essences that have blown my mind. And heard tales of elderflower fritters made by batter-frying entire clusters of blossoms. I've also heard of the blooms being used, either during brewing or as an infusion after the fact, to flavor all sorts of alcoholic beverages: champagne, mead, wine, vodka, etc.
I'm definitely interested in taking some elderflower blooms to experiment with, when our plants come into production. But cutting the flowers will mean less fruit. With the wild elderberries though, the fruit will be no great loss. I can leave just a few blooms to cross-pollinate with the better fruit producing varieties. The rest of the blooms can be used for other things.
Elderberries don't seem to grow much in their first year after planting. Most likely, they concentrate on root development. Like many berry bushes, it tolerates some shade, but produces better with at least 6 hours of full sun per day. They can eventually reach 6 meters in height, though size at maturity varies by the cultivar. Last year's plantings are already showing vigorous growth this year. I'm not sure when we'll get our first harvest of either blooms or berries. But I'd be surprised if we didn't get at least a little sample by next year at the latest. I'm really looking forward to it.
Aside from the culinary merits of the flowers or berries, elderberry plants have other uses as well. Sambucus canadensis is one of those "medicine chest" plants. Soothing ointments and eyewashes can be prepared from its leaves and flowers. All parts of the plant have been used for various complaints over the years. Cuttings of elderberry are good for activating a compost pile. The leaves can be rubbed on skin as an insect repellent. All around, it's a very promising plant that I'm happy to have as part of our edible and useful landscape.