Monday, November 28, 2011

Blue Elderberry

My supervisor- a resource specialist here at Cascadia- and I were out doing field work along the Entiat River a few weeks back, and we came across a segment of native streamside vegetation (also known as riparian vegetation, see the previous "Getting Youth Involved" post for a thorough explanation), particularly abundant in blue elderberry.  We marveled at the large clusters of blue fruit, still hanging heavily from the branches even though most of their leaves had already fallen.  Not only were they visually striking against the fall foliage of other native plants (most notably the soft reds and oranges of black hawthorn leaves), but they looked delicious!

After our conversation, I wanted to learn more about blue elderberry. Here we are with this native shrub right at our fingertips, and many of us have no idea about the ecological, cultural, culinary or medicinal benefits. Here's some information that I found interesting:
  • Common Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is found all over the temperate to sub-tropical latitudes of the northern hemisphere, as well as in parts of South America, and Australasia.  Its native range is hard to determine, as the plant has been cultivated since the Middle Ages.
  • Our local subspecies, Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), ranges from southern British Columbia down to northwestern Mexico, and as far east as western Montana, Colorado, and Texas (Crane 1989).  
  • Historically, native tribes called the elderberry the "Tree of Music."  They made flutes and whistles from the naturally hollow branches (Austin 2001). Branches were also used to make arrow shafts.
  • Hollow elderberry stems can be used to make pollinating bee nesting structures. For more information visit and have fun exploring several "build your own pollinator nesting site" guides.  Do your part to help native pollinator species and up the pollination rate in your garden in return!
  • Elderberry branches can also be made into squirt guns (USDA 2001). Look out!
  •  The bark, stems, leaves, and flowers can all be ground into a poultice (mixed with chamomile) that will reduce joint stiffness/inflammation and swelling from bee stings (USDA 2001).
  • Blue elderberries are edible when ripe and cooked and make delectable jams, jellies, wine, and pies.  Lots of recipes can be found online!
  • Blue elderberry just happens to be one of the plants Cascadia is offering in our 2012 Native Plant Sale!  Visit our website to find the plant sale order form and brochure or take a look at our Cascadia Quarterly Fall 2011 newsletter for more details on this and other available plants.

The flowers from this elderberry species are often used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Elderflowers contain flavenoids and rutin, compounds that work with Vitamin C to support the immune system (USDA 2001).  A deliciously fragrant elderflower tea can be made from either fresh or dried flowers (and in conjunction with yarrow, chamomile, echinacea, or several other herbs) to treat hay fever, cold and flu symptoms (Vertolli 2009).

Elderflower is a popular flavor in many    European countries.  During my travels in New Zealand, I noticed  Elderflower-flavored sodas and yogurt were common on grocery store shelves (and were very tasty!). 

According to a friend who is a New Zealand native, many people of her generation grew up with an "elder tree” in their yard, and enjoyed home-made elderflower cordial (a soft-drink) as a summertime treat.  She gave me her recipe, and I did try to make it the summer following my travels.  My first attempt did not turn out as I would've liked, mostly due to the type of yeast I had to add (ideally, the wild yeasts occurring on the flowers would be all you need). It's definitely worth a try!

Here’s the recipe, file it away for next summer, harvest some elderflower blossoms, and enjoy!

Elderflower Cordial  
(From of Stone Circle Farm, Amberley, New Zealand)

Ohio State Weed Lab Archive,
The Ohio State University,


20 elderflower heads
5 cups white sugar
2 lemons (juice and zest)
10 liters water (about 2.5 gallons or 40 cups)
2 tablespoons vinegar
(If required) 1 tablespoon bakers yeast dissolved in 2 tablespoons warm water

Gathering elderflowers- harvest in late spring to early summer when flower heads are in full bloom.  Elderflowers should be gathered when the sun is shining.  Shake off insects, but do not rinse as the natural yeast present is necessary for fermentation.

Boil 2 liters (.5 gallons or 8 cups) water and dissolve sugar. Add remaining 8 liters (2 gallons or 32 cups) cold water.  Add lemon juice and zest.  Add elderflower heads and vinegar.  Stir gently.  Cover with muslin or tea towel and set aside for 24 hours, stirring every 6 or so hours.  After 24 hours, if it’s not starting to bubble, add yeast mixture. Set aside for a further five days, stirring occasionally.  Strain through muslin, cheesecloth, or a fine-mesh colander and into bottles with screw tops.  Leave for 8 days, checking the bottles and letting out excess gas.  Chill and enjoy! 

Thanks for reading!

Your friend in conservation,

Austin, Miriam. “Plants in Peril: Hard Times for Blue Elderberries” Watersheds Messenger. Vol. VIII, No. 3. Fall 2001. Western Watershed Project. 4 November 2011. <

Crane, M. F. "Sambucus nigra subsp. cerulea." Fire Effects Information System. 1989.  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.  4 November 2011

Kabuce, N. and Priede, N. "NOBANIS– Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet– Sambucus nigra." 12 December 2010. Online Database of the North European and Baltic Network on Invasive Alien Species.  9 November 2011
Stevens, Michelle. “Blue Elderberry.” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plants Database. April 2001. USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center and The Biota of North America Program.  4 November 2011

Vertolli, Michael, R.H. “Suffering From Summer Allergies? Elder Flower to the Rescue.” Vitality Magazine. June 2009. 4 November 2011 <>.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been taken to ensure that information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.  The information found on this website is provided as suggestion only, and we cannot guarantee that favorable results will be obtained from its use.  It is the sole responsibility of visitors to this site to positively identify their own plant species to use at their discretion.  

1 comment:

  1. Batter-fried elderberry flowers are tasty. We were introduced to them by an aunt in Austria and have made them at home using a tempura-type batter.