Two elderberry plants now diversify our little home orchard. I have visions of 15 pounds of berries coming from each shrub, to be used in elderberry tincture, syrup, jelly, wine and more. Or of butterflies enjoying the flowers, or birds devouring the fruits.

Sambucus canadensis, also called American elder, sweet elder or black-berried elder, grows to be six to 12 feet tall, sometimes even taller, with multiple stems. It likes a moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, and will not do well in a poorly drained soil. A little compost in the planting hole and a top dressing of compost each year will benefit the plants.

Watering and weeding are important in the first summer, as the plants are fairly shallow-rooted and don’t compete well with weeds when they’re small.

Once established, this native shrub produces in early summer a big head of white flowers, technically called a cyme, that is said to be tasty when dipped in batter, fried and served with sugar and cinnamon.

Flowers that aren’t frittered should produce fruits in late summer, especially if another elderberry shrub grows nearby for pollination. While plants are self-fertile, they do better when they cross with another plant of the same or different variety. I planted one ‘Adams’ and one ‘York’ shrub, one from Half Moon Gardens in Thorndike and the other from Plants Unlimited in Rockport. ‘York’ is supposed to have larger fruits and to bear more and later than ‘Adams.’ Plants can be set six to 10 feet apart and should be no more than 60 feet from one another for cross pollination.

Fedco Trees, which ships elderberries in early spring, offers this convenient method for harvesting berries: “Pack entire panicles of berries into plastic bags and put the bags in the freezer. Once frozen, remove and whack the bag with a ruler, piece of kindling, etc. The berries will easily fall from the stems. Then poke a hole in the bag and the berries will roll out! Freezing will not damage the berries.”

Pruning can increase elderberry yields. New canes come up each year, and in their second year develop lateral branches. The new canes and especially the laterals produce flowers and fruit, so those second-year, well-branched canes are ideal. Three-year-old canes will produce fairly well, too, but after that it’s downhill. So to keep berry production up, maintain about the same number of one-, two-, and three-year-old canes by pruning out anything older in late winter or early spring.

Propagating can increase yields, too. Soon after planting my two shrubs, I took softwood cuttings, which are, I hope, rooting by the time you read this. Hardwood cuttings taken in early spring should root well, too.

Elderberries have a long folk history of medicinal use, and recent research suggests that preparations made from the fruit can stimulate the immune system and help fight flu and other health problems, and that antioxidants in elderberries may help scavenge free radicals that may be implicated in such diseases as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In addition to various medicinal components, the fruits are relatively high in phosphorus, potassium and vitamin C.

Some parts of the plant can be toxic, however. Consuming the leaves, stems, twigs, roots and unripe fruits can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and even coma, according to North Carolina State University’s “Poisonous Plants of North Carolina” at

But back to the good stuff. An old book, “Food in England,” by Dorothy Hartley, provides easy directions for making Elderberry Rob (syrup): “Put a jar full of elderberries into a hot oven until the juice runs; strain off and to one pint of the juice add 1/2 pound of sugar and 1/4 teaspoonful (or large broken stick) of ground cinnamon; cover and boil slowly till thick.” You could substitute honey (to taste) for the sugar.

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.