A Cook's Garden

The Eminently Edible Elderberry

A bunch of culinary uses: The elderberry can go into jams, jellies, cobblers and wine, and its flower into fritters.
A bunch of culinary uses: The elderberry can go into jams, jellies, cobblers and wine, and its flower into fritters. (Istockphoto.com)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 5, 2007

Raise your hands. How many of you celebrate the summer solstice by making elder flower fritters? No? How about making elderberry wine from the dark purple fruits that follow? Never? Have you ever seen an elderberry bush? Okay, let's start there.

American elderberry ( Sambucus canadensis) grows wild throughout the eastern half of the United States. It's tall, lanky, rampant -- and beautiful. It forms great thickets of arching branches, and when it blooms it is covered with white, fragrant, flat-topped flower clusters, in some cases more than a foot wide. Each cluster is its own little flower field for butterflies and bees. Dozens of bird species flock to the fruits. The plant is considered "coarse" by those who design gardens, and it is not a specimen for the formal yard. But for a naturalistic setting it's an overlooked treasure, perfect along a fence, in a hedgerow or between a lawn and a stand of trees. Easy to grow, especially in rich, moist soil, it's a great plant for the edible landscape.

A number of fancy elderberries may be had, many of them varieties of the European species Sambucus nigra. Some have gold-colored or lacy foliage, and one called Sutherland Gold has both attributes. I like one called Black Beauty; its lilac-colored blooms are striking against its near-black leaves. But for berry production you want cultivars such as the prolific Adams, Johns and York. You'll need two different ones to ensure good pollination, and right now is a good time to plant them. As they grow, prune stems that are more than three years old, to keep the bushes productive.

Like most tiny fruits with a high ratio of skin to flesh, these are a storehouse of nutrients. They're always eaten cooked, and they must be teased from the clusters with a fork or wide-spaced comb to avoid the little stems. (Never eat the leaves, twigs, bark or roots, which are toxic, as are the berries in their raw state.) You'll need to sweeten them and add pectin if you're making jelly or jam. They're great in muffins or cobblers and add color and flavor to pies made with paler fruits such as apples.

Flower fritters are the best. Snip off a flower cluster (dust off any bugs) and dip it upside down in a thin pancake or tempura batter. Fry it in vegetable oil until golden and crisp. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice. An elder will supply these treats for much of the summer. Can your azalea do that?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company