The landscape and natural world mark the passing of time. For many people the ebb and flow of the farm and growing season provide a calendar from which to judge the years. For others, a walk in the woods or the changing scene from the side of the road similarly convey the shifting of seasons. As the summer heightens, one might notice the development of ripe fruits and berries from spring’s blooms.

Elder or elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is one such marker of time. The white umbrella-like flowers emerge in June and by late summer have been replaced by clusters of deep purple berries. Elder lines roadsides and streamsides and thrives in the rich soils of the forest understory. Elder is native to North America with a range spanning the continent. The elderflower and elderberry have been an important source of medicine and food for native peoples and the earliest settlers. Traditionally it has been used as dye and is known endearingly as “nature’s medicine chest.” In recent years, this shrubby plant has been gaining a reputation for its ecological, culinary, and health benefits.

As a native plant species, elderberry has evolved with the landscape and its coinhabitants. The sweetly lemon-scented flower provides a rich source of pollen and nectar to foraging bees and other insects. The ripened berry is an attractive fruit for several species of bird. Due to its tolerance of varying growing conditions and its affinity for water, elderberry has been an important component of stream stabilization and minimizing erosion. It is now included in many restoration projects and landscaping as a multifunctional buffer.

The flowers and berries are also quite delicious. Flowers are used to make teas, flavor cocktails, and can even be fried to make fritters. Berries should be cooked before consuming and are used in jams, pies, syrups, teas and elixirs. For an easier harvest of ripe berries, freeze berry clusters after cutting and shake frozen clusters into a bucket of water. Unripe berries and twigs will float to the top while the ripe ones will sink to the bottom! Flowers and berries are known for their immune boosting properties and have been known to ward off the flu and other viruses. The berries contain high levels of vitamin C, vitamin A, and many other antioxidants contributing to its high nutritional value.

Elder is an easy-to-grow shrub. Grown from seed or cuttings, it can easily be incorporated in one’s home landscape, forest, or fields. Intercropping elder with other crops can reduce stress from wind and reduce evaporation losses. Given the number of benefits derived from the plant, elder is in increasing demand. Whether one grows for home or market consumption, the health benefits for humans and wildlife are remarkable.

As you drive the roads or walk the rivers, keep eyes open for this native beauty. The fragrant blooms will be giving way to rich purple fruits — a hint to the passing seasons and a reminder to enjoy the days of summer sun and nature’s abundance.

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Erin Fitz specializes in sustainable agriculture and agroforestry systems with Appalachian Sustainable Development in partnership with the AmeriCorps VISTA program.

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