While everyone knows about blueberries, strawberries, and other more common types of berries, elderberry trees and bushes are relatively unfamiliar to the common person. The somewhat strange clusters of berries are often considered to be “food for the birds” and most people pass up on the opportunity to cultivate this unique tree crop that has dozens of uses. From a homemade immune system boosting syrup, to port-like wine, to a reliable source of quick-growing biomass, elderberry trees offer several advantages to the permaculture farmer and homesteader.
What is Elderberry?
Known as the “sambucus” species, there are dozens of different types of elderberry trees and shrubs. All of them, however, are distinguishable by their large, eye-catching white flowers that turn into clusters of small but abundant berries. While most elderberry bushes have fruit clusters that are a dark purple or indigo color, there are also elderberry trees that come with red berries.
The elderberry tree is native to the North American continent from Canada all the way to Colombia and thus obviously tolerates a wide range of growing conditions and climates. Trees usually take 2 to 4 years to begin bearing, though under optimum conditions you can get your first harvest only a year after planting.
One of the Easiest Plants to Propagate
One of the biggest expenses of setting up a homestead is purchasing the trees, shrubs, and other types of plants you want to plant out your farm. A visit to your local nursery to purchase a variety of fruit trees will most likely leave you with a several hundred dollar tab. Propagating your own trees and shrubs is a great way to cut costs during the initial process of establishing your vision for the land.
Elderberry trees and shrubs are extremely easy to propagate, both from seed and from cuttings. To propagate by seed, simply hang a cluster of picked elderberry fruits upside down in a sunny location to dry out. Once dried, shake the seeds loose from the dehydrated fruit pulp and place in a bag in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 weeks to cold stratify before attempting to germinate.
A far easier propagation strategy is through taking cuttings of half-ripe wood. Cut pieces about 2 feet in length, trim the leaves and cut back the bark to reveal the cambium layer beneath. Ferment a little bit of willow leaves and bark cuttings in water and place the elderberry cuttings in the willow water for 1-2 days. Willow leaves and bark have rooting hormones that will help to stimulate quick rooting. You can then either directly plant these cuttings into the ground (if early enough in the season) or plant in a nursery setting.
A Source of Abundant Biomass
Elderberry trees and shrubs are one of the quickest growing tree species to be found. After planting, it is possible to get upwards of 4 to 8 feet of growth in the first year alone! Furthermore, these trees respond well to aggressive pruning meaning that you can choose to either let them grow into tall trees that could become the canopy or sub-canopy layer of a food forest, or prune them to stay as small trees and shrubs.
The abundant biomass created by the quick growth of the tree makes the elderberry a great candidate for “chop and drop” mulch. Growing elderberry shrubs on contour will allow you to harvest excessive amounts of biomass “mulch” through your pruning that can then either be added to the compost pile or piled up for on contour hugelkultur beds or erosion barriers.
Furthermore, the abundant and large flowers on the elderberry tree are great for attracting pollinators. Planting several elderberry shrubs scattered throughout an orchard is a great way to help achieve maximum pollination. Since elderberry trees flower through much of the growing season, the bees in your orchard will benefit from having an abundant and constant source of food.
Health Benefits of Elderberries
While the unripe berries of this tree are known to contain rather large amounts of a precursor to cyanide, once ripe, you´d be hard pressed to find a more nutrient dense food source. Elderberries are extremely high in Vitamin C (much higher than oranges, for example), and simply boiling the berries down into a thick syrup is a great way to maintain a yearlong supply of an immune-system-boosting syrup. A couple tablespoons of this syrup each morning will keep your body strong and resilient throughout the year.
Elderberries are scientifically proven to be high in tannins, potassium, mucilage, phenols, and flavonoids. They are also a great source of folic acid and vitamins A and C, as mentioned above. If you want to make more than just cough syrup from your elderberry harvest, these berries can also be made into jams and jellies or fermented into a port-like wine. If you have too many berries to use, the flowers can be harvested when in full bloom and fried into delicious flower fritters.