Good Life

Over the Garden Fence | Enjoy the fruits of your labor by picking or planting elderberries

For many years, I have kept my eye on a large elderberry shrub growing at one corner of a barn at the Horticulture Farm at Penn State.

Every year it produces many clusters of dark blackberries, which either fall onto the ground or are enjoyed by the birds. I have always thought about making elderberry jams or jellies or elderberry wine, so I did some research.

Blue (or black) elderberries grow in the wild over much of the United States and even up into Canada. The several kinds of elderberries all belong to the genus Sambucus. The red-fruited kinds 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. I consider that shrub wild, but it may have been planted many years ago by people who lived in the adjacent farmhouse.

You will see that even the flower is edible if you 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. In Europe, the flower is even considered to have medicinal properties.

The 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 since elder wood is pithy and soft at the center, the tree shape is not very sturdy.

Harvest the fruit when it is very dark in color and the surface is covered with a dusty bloom. You can then 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 and 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 high 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.

For planting in the garden here are some named varieties:

Adams: Clusters and berries bigger than the wild type and ripens in early August.

Johns: More vigorous than Adams but not as productive, it ripens a few weeks later.

Kent: This variety resembles Adams but ripens about 10 days earlier.

Nova: The 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.

Good luck with your elderberry, pies, jellies and wine.

Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist in the department of plant science at Penn State. Readers may write to him at