Elderberries (Sambucus Canadensis)

If you’re looking for a tangy treat, keep an eye out for elderberry shrubs.


Trees Forever Field Coordinator Jeff Jensen has two elderberry shrubs on his hazelnut farm, Nut Haven in Fenton, Iowa, but this summer, he went in search of the plant’s white blossoms wherever he could find them, so he could test out new recipes.


“One of the cool things about the elderberry is that you can use either the berries or the flowers,” Jensen said. “The elder flowers are very delicate. When you harvest them, you can soak them and make a simple syrup.”


This summer, Jensen attended the Elderberry Flower Power Festival in Minnesota, where he learned how to make elderberry delicacies, such as elderberry syrup to spice up lemonade and even elderberry-flavored liqueur.


“My favorite was probably the St. Germaine elderberry liqueur. It was a pear brandy elderflower syrup, and it was pretty good!” Jensen reminisces.


Now he’s experimenting with an elderberry-infused hazelnut oil.


“I’ve had some bottles with elder flowers in them for about three weeks now,” Jensen explains. “I’m going to drain that out and see what kind of flavor it has.”


Assuming Jensen’s experiment goes as planned, the elderberry flavor is indescribably delicious.


“There are no comparisons. It is that unique,” Jensen said. “Everyone likes it. It’s usually with some sort of syrup, so it’s sweet. It’s got its own taste, but very subtle, very tasty and unique.”


Today,  elderberry is usually found in the “in between” places, nestled along roadsides and at the edge of woodlands. In early to mid- summer, you’ll spot the tall, showy, white flower perched on top of a tall cane-like shrub, often towering above a tall man’s reach.


In August, the white flowers give way to green berries. The cautious forager knows better than to harvest before the berries are ripe because the unripe fruit can be mildly toxic. 


The green berries contain a chemical similar to cyanide and if you eat a sufficient number of them . . . well, let’s just say the negative effects will turn you off to elderberry for a very long time.


However, the benefits of the ripe elderberries are well worth the wait for them to ripen. The berries are very high in Vitamin C and anti-oxidants, and the ancient Greeks were even known to use the fruit extensively for its anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.


Agroforesters have made strides in domesticating the wild plant, which is exciting news for landowners living in flood plains. Elderberry plants do not need well-drained soil, and they offer many environmental benefits as a perennial crop option.


Learn more about using elderberries an agroforestry crop by clicking here.

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)