The Wild American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a beautiful woody shrub, four to twelve feet tall, with smooth yellowish-gray branchlets, bright green leaves in feather-like arrangement, and white pith. It forms showy, fragrant cymes of white flowers in late June, followed by bright purple to black berries from late July to September. Each round, purple-black berry contains three to five small seeds and a burst of crimson juice. Because of the berries’ tartness and relative seediness, elderberries are rarely eaten fresh off of the shrubby tree. With their complex, slightly-bitter flavor, elderberries lend themselves well to a wide-variety of preparations, such as: wine, juice, cordials, extracts, syrup, jelly, jam, food colorants, vinegar, fudge, barbeque sauces, and salad dressing.This tiny black fruit yields an abundance of juice for its small size.
Native to Missouri and much of Midwestern North America, Wild American Elderberry is different from the European elderberry cultivar. The European variety, unlike Wild American Elderberry, is grown as a commercial crop and featured as an ingredient in many products on American shelves. American elderberry is new to the commercial market, despite its long history and tradition. It has been used for centuries in herb-based natural remedies, prized for its flavor and potency. Familiar to the nation’s first inhabitants, Native Americans made use of every part of the plant, crafting tools from the branches and consuming the berries. Native Americans once used elderberry branches to make flutes, so the tree was sometimes called "the tree of music"— its latin name, Sambucus, is also the Greek word for "wind instrument."
In addition to its branches and berries, the elderberry flowers, with their lovely fragrance and delicate flavor, offer alternate applications for the plant. The fresh flowers can be added to batter to make pancakes, muffins and waffles; soaked in water with citrus to make a delicious nonalcoholic beverage; fried into fritters; or used fresh or dried, alone or in combinations with other herbs, to brew tea.
The Wild American Elderberry is commonly found growing along roadside ditches and streams. Please note that green, unripe, or bright red elderberries (Sambucus ebulus) are bitter and possibly toxic, even when cooked.