One of my fondest memories from childhood is enjoying homemade elderberry pie. My Dad, a fantastic pie maker, indulged us regularly in the summer with pies filled with the chewy berries sweetened with sugar.
Then we moved west when I was about eight. Oh, how I missed elderberry pie. I didn’t miss the humidity or the giant bugs of the Midwest.
After a few years, we moved to a home on several acres, and my Dad planted a large garden. He ordered an elderberry plant, the kind we had in Ohio, known as American Elderberry. Also known as Common Elderberry, its scientific name is Sambucus canadensis.
This variety of elderberries doesn’t grow in the Pacific Northwest, especially in eastern Washington’s semi-desert climate. With constant irrigation, the elderberry plant thrived but only stood about 6 feet tall. It produced lots of dark luscious elderberries, and once again, we had elderberry pie in the summer.
American, Red, and Western Blue Elderberry Differences
Six years ago, my Dad gifted me two elderberry plants for my garden on the state’s wet western side. These were American Elderberry, but two slightly different varieties. One flourished immediately; the other took a few more years to expand exponentially.
American elderberry is a native shrub that usually grows along streams, in marshes and moist forests. It may grow up to 12 feet tall. Lovely clusters of small white flowers appear in late spring to early summer.
These flower clusters turn into tiny, inky berries, elderberries, by mid to late summer. Dense berry clusters weigh the stems down, so it’s best to prop them up to avoid damage. Harvest the tart little berries when fully ripe, almost black.
In general, the shrubs are pest and disease-free. American elderberry thrives best in partial shade or sun with lots of moisture. I provide extra moisture in our short summer, but mother nature waters them the rest of the year.
The native west coast elderberry plant is Sambucus Caerulea or Western Blue Elderberry, growing from Canada to Mexico. The Western Blue Elderberry attracts wildlife and is often planted as a hedge as it grows from 15 to 25 feet in height. This elderberry plant variety loves heat and dryness.
Birds love the light blue colored berries on this shrub. Like the American Elderberry, its recommended you cook the drupes before eating. Although I’ve eaten American Elderberries lightly cooked without any ill effects, the fruit can be mildly toxic.
Red Elderberry or Sambucus Racemosa grows across the United States. As the name implies, the berries are a reddish hue. Cook them before using in jams or jellies. The stems, bark, leaves, and roots are very toxic.
Elderberry is a Superfood
Elderberries, considered a superfood, are packed with nutritional goodness. Elderberries, considered a superfood, are packed with nutritional goodnessnols along with protein and amino acids. They’re a favorite additive in folk medicine.
American Elderberry is the favorite for pies, jams, jellies, syrup, and wine. You can use the berries from Western Blue Elderberry and Red Elderberry to make jams, jellies, syrup, and wine.
Elderberry’s use in folk medicine is well-documented. Going all the way back to the Greeks, Hippocrates mentioned the elderberry plant as a part of his medicine chest. There’s evidence of elderberry use in North America for over 5000 years.
Many Native American tribes mention all sorts of remedies using elderberries. The Algonquian used it to cleanse the body; to the Iroquois, it worked as an analgesic, and The Cherokee treated rheumatism with an elderberry tea.
You can easily make your medicinal elderberry syrup for the cold and flu season. There’s plenty of evidence for adverse effects on viruses and reducing inflammation. You can also purchase elderberry infused over-the-counter remedies.
The elderberry plant makes a beautiful addition to your garden. It produces attractive blooms in the spring, its berries not only attract birds but can be used as a medicine, in sauces, or to make wine.
The elderberry plant is easy to grow. The American elderberry and Red elderberry require regular moisture. All varieties are cold-tolerant, thriving in climate zones 3-10.
The berries freeze well. You can make syrup or jam at harvest or take a bag out of the freezer and make syrup in the fall or winter. I add a cup of berries to the pot when I cook beef or pork roasts for an extra tasty and healthy sauce.