Blue elderberry is one of the great plants of the Pacific Northwest forest. I have found this berry in nearly every county of Washington State. It grows in wet, cool shady areas. It produces great berries that are prized for their flavor by both humans and wildlife. Native people have used it for as a medicinal plant and to make small flutes or whistles from its stems.
Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea (formerly Sambucus caerulea), the scientific name for the blue elderberry, is different from the Sambucus racemosa, the red elderberry. The most important difference is that blue elderberry is safe to eat while the red elderberry must be used with much caution.
Even so, berries from the blue elderberry must never be eaten when they are green because they contain a chemical that will cause much stomach distress, and even death, if eaten in quantity.
The berries are best eaten fresh when they have become fully ripe. You will know when they are ripe when they have turned dark blue. This can be a little hard to determine if the berries are still covered with a white/silvery bloom or glaucescence. It will rub off very easily to expose the ripe berries. It is safe to eat the berries with the white covering.
The berries become their best after a hard frost. This event seems to soften them and to make them sweeter.
The berries can be eaten fresh or used in pies, jellies, jams, juices, and toppings. Adding some fresh berries to homemade ice cream is a real treat. If you are into making your own beer, wine or liquors, elderberry is a great source of flavor and color. Elderberry is the main ingredient in Sambuca, a strong liquor made in Sicily.
Blue elderberry is used in natural foods as a source of blue coloring. It helps make blueberry juice look blue.
The plant can be grown from cuttings, seeds or transplants. Fall is a great time to identify the plant before it loses its leaves. Mark the shrub with flagging or metal tags.* For good survival of the transplant it is best to move only smaller plants.
If you will have a year to spare before moving the plant root, pruning the plant in the fall will provide a stronger plant to be moved in the following fall. For even better survival try moving plants to a transplant bed. A season of watering and protecting them there will increase your success from a 40 percent survival rate to a better than 80 percent rate.
Editor’s Note: Jim Freed is an emeritus natural resources professor at Washington State University. This article is reposted with permission from Forest Stewardship Notes. Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
*This assumes you are working on your own land. If you are not, be sure to ask for permission from the landowner or the agency land manager! For more information on using blue elderberry in garden and restoration projects, check out the Washington Native Plant Society’s landscaping pages
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