Chances are that if you live east of the Rockies you have seen elderberries growing wild and may not have even realized it. They commonly grow in moist soils alongside roadbeds, irrigation ditches and streams. Elderberry plants, are hardy in most climates and fast growing, becoming quite large and full with densely clustered bunches of petite blossoms that produce a small, dark, extremely tart berry.
Elderberries grow best in soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soil texture, acidity and fertility. They do not like constantly wet feet, though they love moisture, so make sure the area is well-drained. Shallow-rooted, use mulch to prohibit weed growth rather than disturbing the soil around the plant and use compost or manure mixed with the soil for the first planting in order to establish a sturdy plant. After the first year you will find that reinvigorating that layer of mulch, if necessary, and feeding once in the spring will result in a prolific harvest. Over fertilizing can be more detrimental than none at all, so if using a chemical compound, use a slow-release, balanced formula. Jungle Flora, an organic soil conditioner that works wonders, is also an option.
Harvesting normally occurs from late August through early September. You should harvest the whole cluster, stripping the fruit from the clusters for use. Keep the kids and grandkids from eating as they help with the harvest. The bitter taste may not deter them, as sour seems to be the flavor of the day for the younguns, but they are quite astringent and liable to result in a bad belly-ache, or even nausea. Keep harvested fruit at a cool temperature for later use and process or cook thoroughly prior to consumption.
Elderberries are most commonly used in pies, tarts, jellies and wine. Recipes abound, but for jelly we recommend using a combination of 3-parts elderberry juice to 1-part grape juice and reducing your sugar by 1/2 to 1-cup. Grape and elderberry seem to be a winning combination. The berries can also be dried and added to oatmeal as it cooks, added to muffins or steeped for tea; the flowers are also often dried for tea. About 1/2 cup of elderberries has only 73 calories, but is loaded with vitamin C and A, Potassium and viburnic acid which is beneficial for asthma, bronchitis and nasal congestion. Some people add elderberries to their diet when they feel a cold or flu coming on and swear that it shortens the duration and lessens the symptoms.
If you harvest in the wild, beware the red-berried variety of these bushes. Mother Nature has built in her own warning system for this toxic variety. These bushes will have thorns, whereas the common, edible variety does not. The wisest choice is to grow them yourself.