Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) – Myths and Facts

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A few years ago, in an outburst of energy and over-enthusiasm, I bought a whole bunch of saplings from the Indiana DNR called the “wildlife package”.  Among the various saplings were several elderberry bushes – really just sticks at the time.

Having done a tiny bit of research, I knew elderberries liked full sun and a lot of moisture.  I planted them along where all the rain water drained into the pond.  The spot wasn’t exactly full sun, but then nothing in my yard is full sun.

Flash forward several years -the elderberry bushes have thrived on neglect.  Last year, they had a few flat, white clusters of flowers, but this year, they really took off!  Perhaps the uber-wet springs we’ve had the last two years helped.

I had planted the elderberries not because I had any ambition to make elderberry wine, but because I knew the bees and butterflies would appreciate the nectar and the birds and box turtles would appreciate the berries and we would appreciate the beautiful blooms.

Our native elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, looks very much like the European elderberry Sambucus nigra.  Some experts consider our S. canadensis a subspecies of S. nigra.  It’s a deciduous, suckering shrub, with compound leaves and flowering in June around here.  Native to all the Eastern United States, it’s common to see it growing along roadsides and railroad tracks. In addition to the plain, native plant, there are cultivars available:  Black Lace and Lemon Lace are quite ornamental.  Cultivars like Adams, Kent, Victoria, Nova, Scotia and York have higher berry production.  There are even cultivars producing light blue or red berries.  The flowers and ripe berries are edible, but unripe berries and the rest of the plant are toxic.

I didn’t realize that there are all sorts of myths about elderberries.  Some say a witch lives in the elder bush; others say a tree dryad lives there.  One must always ask approval from the witch / dryad before cutting wood – or you’ll be cursed.  An elder tree was planted near the house to protect the house from lightning or witches (depending on which myth you’re reading at the time).  One myth says you should place a baby in a cradle made of elder wood to protect the child from evil spirits; another myth says you should never put the baby in a cradle made of elder wood, because the Elder witch will torment the child and make him cry.

Interestingly, both our First Peoples and the Europeans used S. canadensis and S. nigra to heal similar health conditions:  for purgatives, for coughs and fevers.  The berries are rich in Vitamins A, C, B6, iron and calcium.

If you want to forage elderberry, be careful to harvest berries when they are completely ripe, then search on line for recipes, there are a bunch (sorry, pun intended).  Personally, I’ll leave them for the birds and box turtles – although I may ask the Elder Dryad’s permission and take some cuttings to start more elder bushes!


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