Elderberry is the 2013 Herb of the Year
The elderberry has been with us for thousands of years. Elderberry bushes can be seen growing wild along road- sides and in moist, wooded locations. They are native to North America, Europe, and parts of Asia and North Africa. The generic name, Sambucus may come from the Greek word sambuke, a musical instrument, possibly made of wood from the elderberry.
There are many folktales concerning elderberry. William Cole in 1656 wrote “In order to prevent witches from entering their houses, the common people used to gather Elder leaves on the last day of April and affix them to their doors and windows.”
Elderberry bushes provide many uses in the kitchen. The tart berries are harvested in summer and are used in jams, jellies, chutneys, wine and teas. Elderberry flowers are used in making the Italian liqueur Sambuca. (Note: Elderberries can be toxic if not processed before use.)
Elderberry shrubs can grow to 12 feet and vigorous trees can be as high as 50 feet. The plant produces clusters of white blooms in spring and late in summer purple-black berries appear. They prefer sun and moist, fertile soil. They can grow from seed or cuttings but the easiest way to propagate a shrub is from suckers.
There are newer varieties such as Black Lace and Black Beauty that are very ornamental and can be pruned back to work well in the garden. They grow to be about 8 feet tall. They produce pink flowers and the berries are a good food source for birds. Black Lace has dark purple to black leaves that can add drama to the garden. (While both Black Lace and Black Beauty have dark (“black”) leaves, the leaves of Black Lace are also finely divided.)
The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry will be available in 2013.