American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). Photo: Mervin Wallace

Respect your Elder: Learn to love American Elderberry

Nadia in a field with yellow flowers blooming

By Nadia Navarrete-Tindall

Nadia does Outreach and Education at Lincoln University and owns Native Plants and More, a consultation business. She lives in Columbia, MO and is originally from El Salvador. 


American elder or elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is more common than you might think, and that is a good thing!  Although not generally considered great for munching off the bush, the dark blue ripe berries of this large shrub can be used to make jellies and jams, pies, even dumplings—and who hasn’t heard of elderberry wine? Elderberry grows best in moist and well-drained soils and it grows happily along the edges of woods, along streams, ditches, roadsides, and many unexpected places, including my backyard in Columbia, MO. Widely distributed in most eastern states, it is found in every county in Missouri. 

There are several species of elderberries in the United States, including the red-berried elderberry (S. pubens), which is also native to Missouri, but only found in Marion County, according to George Yatskievych in the Flora of Missouri. The fruits are red with an unpleasant taste and may be toxic. The black elder (S. nigra) is native to Europe and also grows in Missouri, but our own American elderberry is already adapted to local weather and performs much better. American elderberry can be used for privacy or for windbreaks in urban and rural properties and at the same time provides food for humans and wildlife.

elderberry at FINCA LU campus Nadia

American elderberry grows well under full sun to partial shade. It is a fast-growing, multiple-stemmed shrub that can grow 12 to 15 feet, forming colonies from spreading rhizomes, but can be trained to be shorter or to be a single stem with consistent and appropriate pruning. The tiny, aromatic, five-petaled white flowers form showy inflorescences in late May through June. These flower clusters can be used to prepare fritters, tea, flavored cordials and perfumes.

Berry production depends on effective insect pollination, and although the flowers lack nectar, small bees and other insects visit the flowers in search for pollen, facilitating cross-pollination.  In central Missouri, the berries ripen in late August through October, and the mature berries and flowers were used by American Indians for food, medicine, dyes, and beverages. Ripe berries are eaten by birds like robins, bluebirds, catbirds, and cardinals, as well as small animals like squirrels and turtles who aid with natural propagation. In cultivation, elderberry can be very susceptible to rust. For more information on this disease, visit this University of Missouri resource on elderberry rust. 

While the European elder is widely cultivated, the American elderberry is still a niche crop. In recent years, however, interest in American elderberry has increased greatly across the country because it is easy to grow, can be highly productive, and has multiple benefits. Various studies reported in food and horticulture scientific journals report that American elderberry as well as the European elder contain antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. According to the USDA, raw elderberry juice is a good source of iron and potassium and vitamins A, B6 and C. Caution note: although flowers and mature fruits are edible, roots, leaves, immature berries and stems are not recommended for human consumption. Some even considered leaves and roots poisonous.

Elderberry is grown commercially in Missouri and the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s AgriMissouri project promotes it as a specialty crop. For more information on elderberry producers and elderberry products, visit the MDA website. Also, if you are interested in growing it, contact River Hills Harvest or visit the MU Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri website, and their “Growing and Marketing Elderberries in Missouri” publication. 

If you are interested in planting elderberries, you can find suppliers of elderberries and other native shrubs and trees in the Grow Native! Resource Guide.  

Elderberry juice could be mixed with other fruits like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and even rhubarb to improve the consistency. If you have not gathered elderberries yet, you may still have time to do so, and try preparing this syrup.


Additional references

  • Elias, Thomas S. and Peter A. Dykeman. Edible wild plants
  • Kindscher, Kelly. Edible plants of the prairie
  • Phillips, Jan. Wild edibles of Missouri
Elderberry syrup
½ cup concentrated elderberry juice
½ cup water
2 cups sliced strawberries. You can also use blackberries, black raspberries or rhubarb.
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice
To prepare your own juice, you will need about 1/2 lb. of ripe cleaned elderberries, add 2 cups of water, boil for 5 minutes and strain.
Pre-measure all ingredients and add them all together in a pot. Let the mix boil for five minutes keeping an eye on it. Lower the temperature and let the mixture to simmer until it gets the desire consistency. If small bubbles form, should be ready.
Place in a saucer to serve or store in canning jars.
Use it on top of cheesecake, ice cream or serve it on waffles, fresh toast or pancakes. It is delicious and colorful!
*You can find elderberry juice in your nearest Health Food Store or Farmers Market. Check the AgriMissouri webpage for local producers.
mountain mint cheesecake with elderberry syrup

Lemon parfait with elderberry syrup. Photo: Nadia Navarrete-Tindall

Nadia and MPF’s Grow Native! program recommend purchasing native edible plants from Grow Native! professional members and planting and gathering native edibles from your own personal property. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider if you have concerns about consuming any native edibles. Native edible recipes provided by MPF or MPF’s Grow Native! program are for informational purposes only.
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