DOWN TO EARTH SIMPLE LIVING FORUMS

DOWN TO EARTH SIMPLE LIVING FORUMS
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29 September 2014

Elder - easy to grow and productive

Elder flowers - open at the top and still closed at the bottom.

Often, when new gardeners get through the first years of vegetable gardening, they think about adding fruit to their backyard crops.  It's an excellent idea and fruit is quite easy to grow, as long as you're in an area with no animals or insects to spoil your efforts. If you are adding fruit, start off with some of the easy things, depending on your climate of course, like lemons, mandarins, oranges, passionfruit, strawberries, blueberries or elderberries. My selections for the two easiest fruits are strawberries and elderberries.  Strawberries can be grown in pots or in the ground and a few weeks after planting your first strawberry runners, you'll have delicious berries. Elderberry is a tree but it grows fast and doesn't have too many problems. Using either the berries or the flowers you can make a fermented, champagne-style white wine, a red wine, non-alcholic elderberry cordial, elderberry jelly, puddings, cakes, immune booster against flu and elder tea.  Woolworths sell elderflower cordial for eight dollars a bottle but you could make your own for about 50 cents.

Elderberries and flowers are highly nutritious and many people take elder drinks for their healing properties. However, elderberries should not be eaten raw and you should use only the flowers and the berries, no stems, leaves or bark. They can make some people sick. 


Elderberries are native to eastern North America and many parts of Europe. They are two separate species but they're so similar that the North American variety is thought to be a sub-species of the European one. Both species can be used in all the links in this post. There is a warning though. Given the right conditions, elder will send out suckers and you may have more plants than you know what to do with. Our own experience with it has been that it needs quite a bit of water and if it gets it, suckers will apprear. You have to be brutal. We just pull them out. It's an easy enough exercise and so far we've never had a problem with our main tree or any of the suckers.


I first came across elder when I found a small plant at our local organic food co-op. I'd heard about elder and knew the late John Seymour was a great fan of them, but I'd never seen it in Australia before.  I bought that little elder seedling, planted it and within two years it provided enough shade for our garden bench. Hanno and I still sit in the shade of the elder tree and for that reason alone it has been worth the price and the effort to grow and water it. Elders respond well to a high nitrogen feed a few times a year; comfrey tea is ideal. And as it grows, clip it back to keep it to a size that you can manage. It responds very well to pruning in early spring and will send out a lot of new growth, particularly if you give it a good nitrogen feed at the same time.

Elderberries forming.

Our elder tree is one of my favourite things in our back yard. I try to get others to grow it, and always have a couple of suckers here potted up and ready to give away. I think only my sister and one other person have taken up my offering, but I still try to spread the good news about that tree.  It's spring here so our elder is starting to flower. If history is any guide, the flowers will develop small berries and then they'll drop off. That's the down side of a warmer climate with elderberries - they like the cold and I'm guessing anywhere north of Brisbane they'll develop the flowers but not the berries. We have had a few winter berries but not enough to do anything with. If you're in a  colder climate though, you'll be able to use the flowers and the berries.

So far I've made elder flower cordial - and that was truly a delight in that it didn't taste of fruit and sugar, as most cordials do, it tasted more of flowery honey instead.  Using that cordial, I made elder ice cream. That too was delicious.


Overall, an elder tree will stand you in good stead as a shade tree or as a productive part of your garden. Christmas champagne made using elder flowers is a seasonal delight. I've included the River Cottage video link below. But champagne is just the start. It's worth experimenting with jams and relishes too and if you produce a basket of berries, try making wine.  It's an easy to grow tree and even if you only use it for shade, it's worth the effort.

Do you have elders growing in your garden?

River Cottage elder champagne video
Elderberry facts
Mother Earth News - elderberry
Mother Earth News - how to gather elderberries and recipes
Elderberry syrup for flu prevention

28 comments:

  1. Elderberry trees are often found in public places here in Britain and, like blackberries, sloes and wild raspberries, are free for the picking. I'd never done anything with elderberries until my friend and I gathered a few pounds, but my elderberry and apple jam was delicious (the apples came from her back garden as she had more than she could handle!). I'm thinking of trying some dwarf fruit trees in my tiny west-facing front garden, perhaps apple and/or plum. Cross your fingers for me!

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    1. Good luck Shelley. I'd love to grow an apple tree. It's too warm here.

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  2. hallo, I was really surprised to hear of elderberries in Australia! Here in the UK the elderberries are just finishing and I have made several bottles of spiced elderberry cordial, well blackberry and cordial actually. This is lovely as a hot drink and I believe makes a good winter tonic. I work with small children who are always sneezing over me but I haven't had a cold for years! Elderflower and gooseberry jam is good if the two coincide for you.

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  3. Our elder tree just grows. we don't do anything to it and we've even got self planted seedlings in our front garden, the main tree is in the back garden. We have tried making elderberry wine some years ago but it was quite thick more like syrup. I was sitting in the back garden a few years ago and a pigeon had a feast on the elderberries. I haven't tried making anything lately but would add the warning the elderflower coridal is a diuretic - don't ask how I know that!!

    cheers
    Pat in a warm autumnal England

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  4. I dry some elderflowers and use them to add sweetness to a herbal tea blend of mint, lemon balm, fennel seed and elderflower. I'm drinking some now as I write this!

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  5. I would love to grow one of these for elder flower cordial! I'm not sure if it would do well in our dry area but I might give it a try. One of the first fruits we grew was rhubarb. It grows so easily here in Victoria and is so versatile. I use it in cakes, muffins, desserts and make a fizzy drink with it. I love it!

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    1. Linda, once established it should do okay in a dry climate but you will have to water it during the first year.

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  6. Hi Rhonda,

    I was excited to read this post this morning, as an Elder tree was next on my list of trees to plant! I have hesitated, though, because I wasn't sure which was the medicinal variety. From the sounds of things they all have similar properties so maybe I should just go to the nursery and see what they have.

    I've used the tea for many years when anyone in the family has a cold or sinusitis, mixed with mint tea. I recently watched the 'The Edible Garden' BBC series on youtube, and the presenter foraged for Elder flowers and then her friend made Elder champagne - it looked wonderful!

    Have a beautiful day,

    Madeleine.x

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  7. Rhonda, We don't have it growing and I was just about to tell hubby we need to get one when I read about your offer of a sucker:-) You often write about the cordial you make and I have been quite intrigued. I imagine it would grow quite well here on the Darling Downs.

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    1. I'll put your name on one, Chel. It should grow very well in Toowoomba.

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    2. Thanks Rhonda. I will just surprise hubby :-)

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  8. We planted one this weekend and I must admit I didn't know a lot about them but I'm married to a "Horto" and he loves there ornamental value and often recommends them to customers

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  9. Will definately try one here in southeast of south Australia. Do they need a lot of room away from other fruit trees Rhonda although we don't have a shortage of land I want to make sure it has the right amount of room to grow as we have a lot fruit trees in the area I was thinking of planting it.

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    1. They can grow quite tall, Jenny, but I'm not sure how wide because I keep pruning mine back to keep it small. They don't have to be away from other fruit. We have passionfruit, grapes and blueberries growing close to ours. Good luck!

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  10. I'm convinced. Thanks Rhonda. I've thought about planting one before but it went off the radar. It's such a good all rounder with so much to offer.
    kate

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  11. Thank you Rhonda, I have now put an elder tree on my mental list of things to one day have when I have a big enough garden. Unless they will do alright in a big pot?

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    1. Leiani, as a small plant they grow very well in a pot but you'd have to have a very large pot indeed to get it to the size it needs to be for decent harvests.

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  12. In Germany, the good spirits of the house were thought to live in the elderberry tree, so every farm had to have one near the house. You can still see really old, huge trees in the villages. It brought very bad luck to cut down an elderberry tree! Nowadays I am always happy when I see a newly planted one.
    Of course, the good spirits were the healing properties of the flowers and the berries. At a time when people could not afford to see a doctor, they used the elderberry for almost every illness - and I am sure it often helped!

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    1. Hilde, what a fascinating story. I love it. xx

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  13. We do have one in our garden, a sucker from the plant in the garden next door! I too loved Hilde's story, I love folklore stories like that about plants.

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  14. Rhonda, I planted an elder tree here just a few weeks ago. I'm very eager to harvest from it in the future as we do buy elderberry syrup for winter colds and flus. It is VERY expensive to buy that ready made and with a bigger family, we go through quite a bit of it. You were the one who spurred me on to plant an elderberry tree ~ I remember reading about it on your blog a long time ago and I've been on the hunt for an affordable one for quite some time. My waiting paid off - I bought mine on sale and I'm quite excited to see how it does next growing season!

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  15. We live in Eastern Canada and have a red Elderberry. We were told it was poison but after lots of research I found out you can use the berries if you don't consume the seeds or crush them. We made Elderberry Jelly and we are fine. It just has to be cooked without crushing the seeds or eating the seeds. Jelly is fine. It was very good. We do have to watch the bush closely as the birds will clean the bush overnight when it is ripe.
    Carol

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  17. I planted an elderberry early in the year and it grew like crazy, got flowers and berries but the birds got most of them. I planted another one this fall. I also planted some grape vines and raspberry bushes and I just got a june bearing strawberry from my plant and I think it is confused cause it's fall here.
    I love your blog and enjoy it each time you post...

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    1. Thanks Mary. Good luck with your fruit.

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  18. g'day!
    i bought an elderberry from mudbrick cottage, here in queensland some time ago, forgot you had an elderberry rhonda! now it's in a pot waiting to be planted out, haven't decided where to plant it yet as it's hard to keep trees alive here, with the hot & dry conditions & black soil that turns to cement when it dries out! have almost an acre here so plenty of room, just waiting to see if my native trees survive, have lost one to kangaroos but the rest are still trying to survive
    thanx for the reminder

    selina from kilkivan qld

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  19. I have been wanting to plant a elderberry tree since tasting some of my friends elder champagne a few years ago, but have been put of as we are renting. Maybe if I get a sucker I could pot it for now? Thanks for the post Rhonda

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    1. Stacey, I've kept seedling and sucker elders in small pots for months. One even flowered in a pot, so I have no doubt you'd be able to keep one going until you had the chance to plant it out. It's worth trying. The worst that can happen is that it dies and you have to try again. Start off in a small pot and pot it on as it grows. Good luck with it.

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