Elderberries in Bloom

By John Harrod: Manager, Dupont Environmental Education Center

Blooming right now in the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge is a great shrub of utility and beauty. The common elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis), also known as American elder, can be found throughout Delaware and along the Eastern U.S. from Canada to Florida. Elderberry is a pioneer species and sprouts rather quickly in areas of disturbance. Its haunts are wet areas including stream banks, ditches, moist meadows, marshes and swamps, which is why it can be found in our refuge.

Common Elderberry blooming along the boardwalk trail at the Dupont Environmental Education Center.  Photo by John Harrod
Common elderberry blooming along the boardwalk trail at the Dupont Environmental Education Center. Photo by John Harrod

This deciduous multi-stemmed shrub tends to have an arching habit and grows to 12 feet tall. Elderberry is quite vigorous and responds to pruning well, and will become quite dense through sucker growth making it a nice screen. Carpenter bees and mason bees tunnel into its soft pith of broken stems to construct nests for their young.

Common elderberry produces masses of white flowers in large umbels. The flowers are quite fragrant and attract many pollinating insects. The flowers are sometimes used to make elderflower water which is used in perfumes.

A close-up view of the Common Elderberry flower.  Photo by John Harrod.
A close-up view of the common elderberry flower. Photo by John Harrod.

After the blooms, elderberry produces fruits that are relished by at least 50 kinds of birds including American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, and Tufted Titmouse. People enjoy them too. Raw elderberries have an unpleasant taste and contain small amounts of poisonous alkaloids, so cooking is the way to go. The heat of cooking removes the toxins and improves the taste leading the way to delectables like jelly, preserves, pies, and wine.

The small fruits of the elderberry, which we will see later this summer, are eaten by a wide variety of birds.  Photo by H. Zell.
The small fruits of the elderberry, which we will see later this summer, are eaten by a wide variety of birds. Photo by H. Zell.

The refuge is open dawn to dusk daily, so come out and see the elderberry for yourself as well as the many other bloomers including the sweet scented Sweetbay Magnolia. While there, stop inside the DuPont environmental Education Center and ask a naturalist to lead you on a walk to find more plants.

4 thoughts on “Elderberries in Bloom”

  1. Nancy Frederick

    Some years ago we heard that elderberry blossoms were good in pancakes. Pour a spoonful of batter on the griddle, push an elderberry inflorescence upside down into the pancake and clip off the stems with scissors. It sounded good but we couldn’t detect any flavor in the pancake that wasn’t there already. Has anyone else tried this?

  2. @ Nancy – Growing up in Germany, during Elderberry bloom, my mother dipped blossoms in a light batter and fried them – yes, something like pancakes but closer to maybe a crepe batter, light, and more like quick-deep-fried rather than griddled – an ancient tradition passed on from mother to daughter. (I’m not sure whether to wink after that last part of the sentence or not.) I can’t say that I remember a particular taste but I have a strong yen for smelling that aroma in the kitchen again.

    There is a big difference between the batter my mother used and what we Americans call pancakes. I would try a light batter (crepe), no baking powder, of course. I think one would need Elderberry blossom extract to impart flavor to the robust American-style pancakes! Also, my mother used “sweet” batter. I suppose that was part of the attraction, the addition of a bit of extra sugar that helped the flavor. Sugar wasn’t used as prolifically then as it is today (also war time intrusions, etc.), so a little bit went a long way, as far as taste goes. (She did fight tradition now and then and, being a little bit of a rebel, like her, I’d be tempted to dust mine with powdered sugar.)

    Mother prepared them with stem intact – used the stem for dipping the flowers into the batter, gently shaking off excess before frying in lard (melted animal fat – I grew up on a subsistence farm). The finished product had some batter around the blossoms but even though I call them pancakes, that’s a far cry from what they were. That’s as far as my memory takes me on the preparation.

    For decades I used to say “Elderberry pancakes” whenever the opportunity arose to speak about fried Elderberry blossoms because it seemed easier than explaining crepes. Because of your question, I’ll be sure to say “crepe batter” from now on!

    I once tracked down the binomial for the particular Elderberry I thought it might be (think European) but can’t put my finger on it real quick right now. Just last year I tracked down what I came to learn is called “Celeriac” over here and took care of that yen by preparing according to mother’s old recipe. I used to grow Kohlrabi, but now that can be found in supermarkets in season. So, now it’s down to some kind of European Elderberry sp. and Artemisia vulgaris, Mugwort, I think, the latter is called over here. That’s another taste I’d like to repeat just once more (yes, the dried seed-bearing stems, for use in another ancient recipe probably going back to caveman days). It seems A. vulgaris is considered invasive in many states but not yet in Delaware. Drats!

    One more thing, I’m not sure that all Elderberries are equal as to flavor or edibility (don’t know anything about them except what I read while looking up the latin name) so if someone reading this thinks they’ve found Elderberries, they might be wise to use a bit of caution before thinking that all Elderberry blossoms are created equal, too. I have no expertise in that sort of thing and believe it couldn’t hurt to make sure in order to get the best results and/or avoid an upset tummy.

    I’ll bet no one can guess the first thing I thought of when I saw this “Elderberries in Bloom” post. :o)

  3. We have had elderberry growing off our patio for years. In a word the blossoms stink badly every year. Unless there are varieties I do not know what to make of the claim they smell sweet. It is far closer to urine than sugar.

  4. Joe Sebastiani

    The only thing I can find is that when bruised, the leaves of Sambucus nigra/European Elderberry has a disagreeable odor. If it is beside the patio, do they prune it or brush against it often?

    Here is what our Habitat Outreach Coordinator says about Elderberry smell:

    There are a few other shrubs with unpleasant-smelling flowers, including Privet (Ligustrum), a very common garden shrub. He may want to google that to see if it is this instead. A couple of other common plants that have been noted to smell bad include Boxwood, Bradford Pear & some Wisteria.

    Lori Athey, Habitat Outreach Coordinator Delaware Nature Society

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