Elderberry flowers and fruit have been prized around the world since prehistoric times. Today the juice's antioxidant content makes it popular with a new generation. Pies, jellies, syrups, wines, spirits, teas, and dyes are just a few products you'll find packed with elderberry goodness. And of course the local wildlife have always enjoyed this abundant food resource.
Elderberry plants do contain toxins, however. Worse still, they are sometimes mistaken for other, more toxic plants. While we hope you to enjoy this native Florida fruit, please do so with caution.
Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis (formerly S. simpsonii) is American elderberry, native to the eastern coast of the United States. It thrives in USDA Hardiness Zones 4A to 10B. Within this range there is some variation in this species' cold hardiness and disease resistance. Varieties native to Florida are the best adapted to our climate. In South Florida it sometimes remains evergreen. Further north elderberry loses its leaves yearly as the weather cools.
Regardless of where it's planted, elderberry is fast growing. A single plant can grow to between 5 to 12 feet high and spread up to 10 feet. Depending on pruning practices it develops into a large shrub or a small tree. Ground-level suckers sprout quickly and create a dense thicket without regular pruning. The crown is round and irregular, but not particularly dense. The compound leaves are bright green, borne on drooping branches. The overall texture is fine and delicate, if a little weedy.
Snowy white elderberry flowers appear in large, showy clusters in early summer. In the warmer parts of the state they may continue to bloom sporadically throughout the year. Elderberry varieties native to Florida usually lack the strong fragrance that is so popular. Still, these natives are better suited to Florida's hot and steamy weather than northern or European varieties.
Elderberry develops fruits in mid to late summer. The fruits are found in clusters, called cymes. They ripen from green to dark purple, even black. Once the fruits are black they are safe to consume. Green berries should be avoided because of their potential toxicity (see "Toxicity" below). Harvest with caution. It is not uncommon for a cyme to contain both green and black berries.
A couple of cultivars have ornamental value. 'Acutiloba' has a nice, fine texture. 'Aurea' sports red fruit and yellow leaves. For superior fruits, try 'Adams', a cultivar that produces particularly dense fruit clusters.
Like cassava and almonds, ripe elderberry fruits contain trace amounts of cyanogenic glycosides (CNGs). CNGs are compounds that can break down into cyanide. A healthy person can consume these foods if they're properly prepared. Still, some people are more sensitive to CNGs than others.
Heating elderberry juice and straining out the seeds will help you avoid consuming CNGs. Boiling temperatures are often achieved if you're making jams, jellies, pies, or baked goods. It is not necessary to heat the fruits to boiling, however.
Other parts of the elderberry plant contain higher amounts of CNGs, sometimes at levels toxic to humans. This includes unripe berries, stems, leaves, and possibly the seeds, too. Examine fruit clusters carefully and remove any unripe berries. Strain out the seeds as you prepare the fruits.
Another point of caution comes from elderberry's white flower clusters. These look very similar to water hemlock, one of Florida's most poisonous plants. As always, we urge gardeners to be certain of their plant identification before tasting any foraged foods. For help identifying a plant, please contact us at your county Extension office.
Planting and Care
You can add elderberry to your garden by propagating cuttings or by buying a young potted plant. Planting seeds is another option, but not suggested. Elderberry seeds are rarely true to their parent's type and may require specific conditions to sprout.
Elderberry plants prefer moist, fertile soils and full sun. They will tolerate acidic and alkaline soils, partial shade, and some drought, too. Add elderberry to your garden after the danger of frost has passed or in the late summer. Water the shrub until it is established and then only in dry periods. For more on elderberry as a crop, please read "Elderberry and Elderflower: A Cultivation Guide for Florida."
Elderberry is called a "weedy native" and is prone to breakage. In nature it forms thickets, dense stands of shoots without a central trunk. With some careful pruning the form can be made stronger and tidier. To maintain a single trunk, regularly remove suckers from the base of the plant. Prune it during the dormant season and remove all dead and damaged canes.
Although a fairly hardy plant and crop, elderberry is prone to a few pests and diseases. The woody stems are attractive to borers. Leaf-chewing insects are an occasional problem, too. Cankers, leaf spots, and powdery mildew are the most common diseases. You can reduce the chance of infection by removing old stems and leaves. Applying a neutral copper fungicide in the wetter months may be helpful, too.
For more information about elderberry, contact your county Extension office.