The common elderberry is widely distributed throughout the eastern United States, ranging as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Miami. It frequents ditch banks, roadsides, fence lines, and low hollows.
TREE DESCRIPTION The elderberry is a deciduous shrub, attaining a height and spread of from 6 to 14 feet. It is somewhat rangy or willowy in habit, often forming multiple trunks. Leaves are pinnately com- pound, typically composed of between 5 and 11 leaflets. The leaflets measure from 2 to 3 inches in length and have serrated margins. The elderberry often forms dense stands and may reproduce by sending out runners. Roots are fibrous and shallow. Stems are hollow, filled with white pith.
Within the home garden, the elderberry is usually planted as part of a wildlife garden, naturalized area, or roadside screen. The plant is attractive when in bloom. The small, white flowers are typically composed of a 5-lobed corolla and 5 stamens. They measure about 1/4 of an inch across. The flowers form dense, flat-topped clusters measuring from 6 to 9 inches in diameter. The plant typically blooms in late spring or early summer, although in south Florida, flowering may occur at any time.
FRUIT CHARACTERISTICS Flowering and fruiting take place primarily on 2-year old canes. The fruit is a small, globose, berrylike drupe, ranging in color from red to purple to black. It rarely measures more than 1/3 of in inch in diameter. The pulp is juicy and contains from 1 to 5 small nutlets. The flavor is sweet, but the raw fruit is insipid, unpalatable, and has been known to cause digestive upset.
CLIMATE The elderberry is not affected by the coldest temperatures likely to occur in Florida.
CULTIVATION The elderberry is easy to maintain and will tolerate a wide range of growing condItions. It prefers rich, moist soil, but also performs well in sandy soil. It prospers in full sun but can endure partial shade. Branches over 3 years old should be removed, as these rarely flower or fruit. Fertilization is not required. Heavy applications of nitrogen lead to excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruit production. The elderberry has few serious pests or diseases. It is frequently propagated from seed, which is sown shortly after removal from the ripe fruit. Cuttings from the current season’s growth have been successfully rooted. In addition, suckers may be separated from the parent plant.
HARVEST AND USE Peak fruit production occurs in late summer or fall. The elderberry contains hydrocyanic acid. All parts of the plant, including the raw fruit, are poisonous if ingested. Cooking destroys and eliminates this toxin. The fruit has various culinary uses and may be substituted for blueberries in muffins and other baked goods. The fruit can be used to make jellies, sauces, pie filling, and wine.