Elderflower power

You say elderberry. I say elderflower. Tomayto, tomahto. Whatever you call it, Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis is a wonderful shrub for the garden offering a spectacular variety of bonuses to the gardener. You can even make music with the stems. (More about that later.) Here are 8 admirable attributes that I love about this elegant yet hard-working plant.


One: Easily grown native shrub. Native to parts of North America, including the eastern half of Canada, this fast-growing perennial can achieve its full height in a remarkable 3 to 5 years. It’s shallow rooted and prefers moist soil so the only caveat is that you should keep it very well-watered during it’s first year in the garden.

Two: You’ll help the birds and the bees and a whole lot more. Elderberry shrubs have a very high wildlife value. The flowers will attract a multitude of songbirds as well as bees and butterflies and moths. This popularity with wildlife can be a problem, though. Bears eat the fruit. Deer, elk, and moose love the stems and leaves. So assess your tolerance for wildlife and the likelihood of being host to critters before investing in a bunch of these shrubs. But you might want to anyways because…

…Three: You’ll light up the summer. Unlike a lot of flowering shrubs, this plant blooms through June and July, adding a touch of freshness to the mid-season garden with large cymes that can grow up to 10 inches in diameter. Bonus: the creamy-white flowers have a delicate lemony fragrance.

Four: You can eat the flowers. Elderflower tea and wine are pretty well-known. But did you know you can make elderberry flower fritters? Kind of like zucchini blossoms, you dip the entire flowerhead in a flour and egg batter and fry it. Don’t eat up all the flowers though, because the resulting purple/black berries are edible as well, famously used for jams, jellies and more wine.

Five: And there are even more uses. The berries and stems can be used for dyes and basket-making. The pith of the stems was used as a fire-starter and the resulting hollowed out stems used for flutes and whistles. I understand they make great blowguns as well. If you already have a mature elderberry in your garden and want to make a flute, use this link for a good YouTube video on how to do it. You’re on your own if you’re into blowguns.

Six: The best use may be as Erosion Fixer. If you live in the country near a river or wetland, the roots of elderberries can help absorb floodwater, keep farm field run-off out of a river and reduce erosion. Plant several to help stabilize a stream bank or just about anywhere you have erosion issues.

Seven: There’s no complicated pruning. You can let these plants grow to their full height of about 12 feet tall or trim to whatever height you like. If a shrub needs rejuvenating, you can prune it back hard–basically to the ground–in late winter to maintain its best foliage and habit.

Eight: They’re great filler-inners. Because they’re pretty tolerant of most light conditions (although they prefer sun to part shade) and can be easily maintained at whatever height you want, they make a great choice for filling in that mid-range space between tall trees and shorter, shade-loving plants like hostas. You can also make a lovely, if sprawling, hedgerow that almost all of nature will thank you for.

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