Now that we are living in Underhill House, we love watching the ducks, geese and other migrating birds that take a break in our little pond, but it’s obvious that the feeling is not mutual.  That’s why we are planting  a hedge between the house and the pond.    The plants we choose for the hedge are all native and offer some benefits to birds, such as seeds, fruits and sites for resting and nesting.

We decided to make elderberries, Sambucus nigra, a part of that hedge.  Birds eat the fruit, and humans can too.

Before I rave about the reputed health benefits of the elderberry I have to start with a warning.


Never eat or drink any product made from raw elderberry fruit, flowers, or leaves. They contain a cyanide-producing glycoside and must be cooked before injested.  According to the Poison Plant Patch of the Nova Scotia Museum website, glycosides are toxins in which at least one sugar molecule is linked with oxygen to another compound, often nitrogen-based. They become harmful when the sugar molecule is stripped off, as in the process of digestion.

Please, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before adding elderberry to any other drugs or supplements you already take.  Elderberry is not recommended for children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Now, for those intrepid readers not running for the hills:


Elderberries are a good source of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants which are responsible for giving many red and purple fruits their color.

According to WebMD, Elderberries contain natural substances called flavonoids. They seem to help reduce swelling, fight inflammation, and boost the immune system.

Studies have found that elderberry eases flu symptoms like fever, headache, sore throat, fatigue, cough, and body ache. The benefits seem to be greatest when started within 24 to 48 hours after the symptoms begin. One study found that elderberry could cut the duration of flu symptoms by more than 50%.

Lab studies have found that elderberry might be effective against H1N1, or swine flu.

A few studies have suggested that elderberry could help with bacterial sinus infections or bronchitis. More research needs to be done.

Some people use elderberry for high cholesterol, HIV, and many other conditions. Again, more research needs to be done to confirm this.


Elderberries grow into a nice thick shrub that should be a great addition to our hypothetical hedge, and they are very easy on the eye.  They have gorgeous big flower heads that turn into easy-to-harvest handfuls of those berries full of all those useful antioxidants.

What can you do with them? 

Make them into syrup that can be diluted into a pleasant drink.  Make them into preserves to spread on fresh-baked bread.  Ferment them into elderberry wine.  Remember the nice little old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace?

jar-of-twigs We got our elderberry cuttings at MOSES Organic Farming Conference from Norm’s Farm  and have kept them in the fridge for the past month.  They were starting to sprout in there, so we were very happy to see conditions get good for planting them outside.

Cornell University says, elderberries grow best in moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soil texture, fertility, and acidity. It’s a myth that they prefer swampy areas. In fact, they do not tolerate poor drainage. Plant elderberries in spring, as soon as possible after they arrive from the nursery to prevent plants from drying out. Space plants 6 to 10 feet apart. Elderberries are shallow rooted, so keep them well-watered during the first season.

We selected the new cultivar Bob Gordon , which has a larger berry and yielded nearly triple that of other varieties at Norm’s Farm. It will grow with flowerheads upside down which protects berries from birds.  (We picked Bob Gordon before I started thinking from the birds’ perspective.)  The Bob Gordon was the number one producer in trials and researchers are confident Bob Gordon is a truly superior cultivar for the Midwest and other areas of the country.

Since we planted them, I have read that it’s good to plant several varieties together, so we’ll have to decide this year what to add.  I’ll be looking for a heads-up variety to give the birds their share.

dougWe planted the elderberry cuttings much the way we planted our Red Osier Dogwood cuttings last week.  (See my post Transplanting Red Osier Dogwood)  We read that elderberry cuttings do much better if the end is dipped in rooting hormone.  We had some in the greenhouse, so we covered them liberally.    (We also went back and added an extra cutting to each Red Osier Dogwood group which we dipped in rooting compound.  Now we’ll see if it makes a difference.)

Like the Red Osier dogwood, each cutting was placed in a hole made by pounding a metal rod into the ground.  Then each was mulched and well watered.  Stay tuned!

2 replies

  1. Elderflower champagne is also quite a refreshing drink. Light and sparkly. I miss seeing the elderberries, I have only seen one bush of red ones here and they are listed as an invasive plant here in Latvia.

  2. Nice to hear from you Joanna.
    I hope I can stage a successful invasion in my yard. I’m sitting at the table looking out at the little twigs very hopefully right now.

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