Garden Variety: Respect your elderberries

Late summer is the season for elderberries, a native fruit that is as overlooked as pawpaws and gooseberries despite its health benefits and ease of cultivation. Look for them now and over the next several weeks at local markets or consider planting them for your own enjoyment in future years.

The berries of American elderberry are deep purple to black, ripening in late July through September. Individual berries are pea-sized but borne in large clusters that are best harvested as a unit like grapes and separated later. Plants are large multi-stemmed shrubs with ferny compound leaves. They often grow 8 to 12 feet in height and send out suckers to create thickets.

Elderberries grow wild in eastern Kansas and much of the Midwest, and you may see them in old fence rows or in road ditches. Foraging of elderberries is acceptable if you are absolutely certain of the species and are foraging on your own property or have permission from the landowner. Avoid foraging elderberries in roadside ditches and along railroads because of potential for recent herbicide applications and trespassing concerns. Species identification is important because some elderberry cousins contain toxins.

American elderberries may be easier to find in value-added products than as fresh or frozen berries because of the extended shelf life, but are just as delicious in wine, juice, juice blends, jams, jellies and other foods. A wide number of dietary supplements also contain elderberries, which may also be listed on the label under the Latin names “Sambucus canadensis” or “Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis.”

Refrigerate or freeze fruit after harvest or purchase and keep it refrigerated or frozen until ready for use. Berries and the anthocyanins in their juice may be destroyed by extensive handling and storage, freezing and thawing, and overprocessing.

If planting elderberries, use cultivated varieties for reliability of fruit production. Use more than one variety to increase production by cross-pollination. Kansas State University recommended the varieties Johns, Nova and York. The University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry recommends all of these plus the varieties Bob Gordon, Wyldewood, Adams 1 and 2, Kent, Scotia, and Victoria. The Bob Gordon elderberry was selected from the wild near Osceola, Mo., and the Wyldewood elderberry was selected from the wild near Eufaula, Okla.

Elderberries are also planted for ornamental value. Large white flower clusters may be cut and dried or simply enjoyed in the landscape. Non-native dwarf elderberry species may be more suitable for the landscape but their berries contain toxins that make them inedible to humans.

For health benefits, elderberry is used orally to treat colds, flu, respiratory illness, allergies, and rheumatism, and topically to treat wounds. Although the berries have been used for centuries worldwide, little research is available to support or deny the claims. Black elderberry, Sambucus nigra, is the most commonly cultivated elderberry in Europe and other parts of the world, and may be most common in supplements. American elderberry is better suited to growing conditions in the Midwest and contains similar antioxidants.

According to the Missouri Center for Agroforestry, 80 percent of consumers who sampled an elderberry product made a subsequent purchase.

Elderberry was named Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association in 2013.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to