At the Penn State horticulture research farm, we have a large elderberry shrub that I have been observing through the years growing at one corner of a barn. Each year it produces many clusters of dark black berries which either the birds enjoy or they just fell off onto the ground. One of these years I am going to harvest them before the birds and make some elderberry wine or elderberry jam.
Blue (or black) elderberries grow in the wild over much of the United States and even up into Canada. The several kinds of elderberries belong to the genus Sambucus. The red-fruited varieties are reported to be poisonous, so I would avoid those. Wild elderberries fruit heavily, which is what I observed in the shrub at the horticulture farm which I consider wild, but it may have been planted many years ago by people that lived in the adjacent farm house.
The elderberry plants are tall shrubs with many stems rising up and outward in a fountain shape. Occasionally, a very old shrub turns into a gnarled small tree, but because elder wood is pithy and soft at the center, the tree-shape bushes are not very sturdy.
People have been harvesting wild elderberries for wine, pie and jelly. Some even eat the flower. They dip it in fritter batter and fry it quickly to serve with syrup. It turns out like crisp lace and may even be good for you, because in Europe the flower is considered to have medicinal properties.
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Harvest the fruit when it is very dark in color and the surface is covered with a dusty bloom. You can strip the berries off the clusters of the many stems if you want it for pie. For jelly or wine, just cut the heaviest part of the stem then crush the fruit, or heat it and pass it through the jelly bag. If you eat it before cooking, you will find that it is a laxative and perhaps bitter, but that changes with heat.
The bushes can grow to be about 20 feet in height and will spread out, but you can cut back the oldest stems from time to time to control the size. I would suggest that you remove stems that have borne fruit for several years to make room for the younger growth. You will probably need a small handsaw or large loppers to cut out the stems.
The plants are almost entirely self-unfruitful so you need to plant two plants.
For planting in the garden here are some named varieties:
• Adams: clusters and berries bigger than the wild type, ripens in early August
• Johns: more vigorous plant than Adams but not as productive, ripens a few weeks later
• Kent: resembles Adams but ripens about 10 days earlier
• Nova: large fruit ripens uniformly in the cluster, which is helpful. It is also reported that Nova is sweeter than many varieties and ripens fairly early
• York: produces the largest berry of all in heavy clusters. The plant is very large and productive and it ripens late, after Adams.
I think that elderberries are definitely worth looking at for the home garden and can indeed provide another opportunity to make pies, jellies and wine.