Corn Hill Nursery
New Brunswick, Canada  -  1 506 756-3635

The Enchanted Elderberry

...is blooming now!

And bushes will soon produce dark purple ( almost black ) berries. The blossom looks like to me like a white lace doily. An infamous poison-laced elderberry wine was used to put lonely gentlemen out of their misery by little old ladies in the comedy, "Arsenic and Old Lace." Did "old lace" refer to the ladies, the "laced" wine, or the appearance of elderberry blossoms? Who knows?

Elderberry Bush in Bloom
Here is a nice colony off Gilgal Road in Abbeville County.

Many tiny white flowers form a large more or less flat-topped blossom known botanically as a cyme. Each flower is "complete" with five sepals, five petals, five stamens that produce pollen, and one pistil that produces eggs. And as complete flowers they are also "perfect" because both male and female parts are present. Incomplete flowers lacking sepals or petals, can still be perfect as long as both male and female structures are present!

The Blossom
One Blossom, the cyme.

The Flower
Individual Flowers, you can count petals and stamens.

Elderberry is in the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, whose Greek root words mean "goat leaves." That makes sense for most honeysuckles, with simple (one undivided green blade), oppositely arranged leaves with sort of a "goat's ear" shape. Leaves of elderberry also have opposite arrangement, but they are compound leaves, with the green blade divided into smaller leaflets not resembling goat's ears! The leaves somewhat resemble those of an ash tree.

The botanical name of our native "common elderberry" is Sambucus canadensis. Sambucus comes from the Greek word sambuke, an ancient stringed instrument made from elderwood! It ranges throughout North America. Our elderberry may also be classified as a subspecies of European black elder Sambucus nigra and is thus named Sambucus nigra subspecies canadensis. As for the common name, "elder" is said to be derived from an Anglo-Saxon word aeld meaning "fire." Mythology tells of the firey Elderberry Goddess who embodied the spirit or spark of life! Fairyland is also known as Eld in Celtic lore, which says that you may see a fairy procession if you sit under an elder tree when the berries are ripe! Guess this is the "enchanted" part!

And, botanically speaking each fruit is called a drupe!

Ripe Elderberries
Beautiful juicy ripe drupes!

"This is a vastly underrated native fruit. It is an upright, somewhat coarse bush with showy white flowers, followed by deep purple fruits that ripen in early fall. Although bland for fresh eating it is superlative in jams, jellies, syrups, pies and especially wines. These varieties are selected for high yield and flavour. We recommend you order at least two different varieties for proper pollination. These are hardy to Zone 3."
(The quote is by Bob Osborne, the owner of Corn Hill Nursery, New Brunswick, Canada and photo by Brian Elliot.)

In the video "Edible Wild Plants: Natural Health Video Series," botanist Jim Meuninck features fresh elderberry flowers fried into pancakes, and berries made into a sticky candy. All sorts of elderberry recipes can be found at this British site: Elderberry grows well in low places, like roadsides ditches. It is a shrub that can be 30 feet high. The European elder grows taller. There are some really nice horticultural varieties available for landscaping, including one with blue berries and one with purple leaves. Elderberries are perennials whose stems die back in winter and sprout out again each spring. Apparently they will remain evergreen in South Florida.

For centuries elderberry has been an important medicinal and food plant. There&145;s more about elderberry as "the medicine chest of the common man" and its many uses by Native Americans. More recently an antiviral extract of elderberry, Sambucol, is reported to be an effective treatment for flu.

Have respect for your "Elders"!

Prepared for the South Carolina Native Plant Society
by Jan Haldeman, (Professor of Biology Emerita, Erskine College)
in June 2004.

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Parts of this site were updated Jan. 20, 2006.
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