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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: You'll find this berry interesting

A roadside elderberry
Pat Leuchtman photo

A roadside elderberry Pat Leuchtman photo

Elderberries and chokeberries are not as beautiful or familiar as spring’s strawberry, but these small, dark berries that ripen in late summer pack a nutritional wallop. I’ve known the elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) since childhood, but the chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is fairly new to me.

Whether you call the elderberry a tree or a bush, it is having a very good year. I seem to see elderberry bushes everywhere I go. I can easily identify the bushes, which have large, flat clusters of creamy flowers that can be as much as 8 inches across, as I drive along Route 2, or down the wooded roads of Heath. An elderberry that usually grew by the road at the bottom of our hill seemed to disappear but this year, it has returned in full bloom.

When we first moved here in 1979, our 83-year-old neighbor Mabel Vreeland gave us a Heath welcome by sending up a bushel basket filled with carrots and parsnips from her own garden and a bottle of elderberry juice made from the elder by the side of the road. It was definitely not elderberry wine! Mabel was teetotal and she drank this bitter juice for its nutritional and healing benefits. Elderberries are more nutritious than blueberries, which are much touted these days for their health-giving benefits. In fact, in addition to the nutritional benefit of the berry, every part of the elder bush was used for medicinal purposes in ancient times, when our pharmacopeia was more dependent on plants.

I have never been particularly interested in making elderberry juice or wine. Elderberry jelly, made with a substantial addition of sugar, is of more interest to me. Mostly I have just been happy to know that the birds love elderberries and probably appreciate the nutrition as much as we do.

Elder has a history of being useful in many ways when we used to concoct our own tinctures and remedies. Crushed leaves rubbed on our skin or hat was thought to repel flies and an infusion of fresh leaves rubbed on skin was considered a mosquito repellent. With all the moles and voles I have had recently, I am tempted to try making an infusion that I could pour down their holes to send them on their way.

Natural dyes for wool fleece and yarn are enjoying a new popularity. Elder bark and roots make a black dye, but the leaves combined with alum will make a green dye. Elderberries and alum will make a violet dye, while combining the berries with salt and alum will create a paler lavender shade. I suspect that it takes a real recipe to make beautiful dyes.

I went looking for local elderberry bushes last fall when I was making a “bee box” that would attract native pollinators. I also used slim bamboo sticks from my daughter’s garden. Native bees will lay their brood in hollow stems, or in stems of plants like elderberry that have a soft pith that the bees can remove.

Harry Potter got his magic wand in a shop, as I recall, but anyone can make their own. Elder wood is the traditional wood for magic wands and is known to grant wishes; as long as the wish is not a selfish wish.

I confess that I don’t make much practical, or magical, use of elder, but I like having it in the neighborhood because it is a native plant, has lovely flowers and feeds the birds.

Nature Hills Nursery and Raintree Nursery offer a selection of elderberries: Sambucus Canadensis and Sambucus nigra, which is used for more ornamental purposes. Both need another bush for cross pollination to bear fruit. They also sell aronia bushes.

Elderberries have been familiar to me for most of my life, but another new native berry, the aronia berry, sometimes called a chokeberry, is becoming popular for many of the same reasons. It is highly nutritious and the Washington State University Extension explains that the current interest in aronia berries is because of the “very high levels of anthocyanins and flavonoids, five to 10 times higher than cranberry juice, with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins.” However, like elderberries, it is also bitter and best used in jams or mixed with other fruit juices, or it can be made into wine. Europe is way ahead of the U.S. in finding palatable ways to use aronia berries.

I want to stress that chokeberry is a totally different plant from chokecherry!

Aronias resemble elderberries in other ways, as well. The hardy bushes grow up to 8 feet tall, produce white blossoms in spring and attract birds to the berries in fall. They also make a good landscape plant because of their spring flowers and brilliant red autumn color. Neither bush has insect or disease problems, making them low maintenance. Aronias can tolerate a damp site and are suitable for rain gardens.

Are elderberries or chokeberries a possibility for your edible, ornamental or native garden?

Pat Leuchtman, who is The Recorder’s garden columnist, has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com.

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