Elderberries (sambucus spp.) were one of the earliest food sources identified by humans, with traces found even in Stone Age sites. The plant is native to Europe, North America, western Asia and North Africa. The stems, roots and leaves of the plant are not recommended for ingestion, but the foliage can be used for making dyes, and the fruit and flowers are used for culinary and medicinal purposes.
When berries reach 0.6cm (1/4 inch) in diameter they are generally ready to be picked. This usually falls sometime between late August and early September depending on variety, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Red elderberry varieties tend to bloom a week earlier than the purple, and are also ready to be picked in the middle of summer. Colour is a good indicator of ripeness: purple varieties must be a deep purple and reds a dark, intense red.
Harvest the berries by removing the entire ripe cluster from the bush and then separating the individual berries later. Elderberries cannot be consumed raw and must be cooked or processed in some way. Popular uses for elderberries include pies, jams and jellies. In their uncooked form, the juicy berries are astringent. It is best to use freshly harvested fruit immediately, and to store it in a cool place if you cannot. The mild toxins contained in the raw berries and flowers are deactivated with cooking, notes National Geographic's "Edible" (2008).
Elderberries grow on large-sized shrubs or small trees with a mature height of 3.6m (12 feet) to 6.1m (20 feet). The deciduous, compound foliage has 5 to 11 leaflets and measures 13cm (5 inches) to 23cm (9 inches) long. Leaflets are anywhere between 4cm (1 1/2 inches) to 15cm (6 inches) long and about 6cm (2 1/4 inches) wide. The undersides of the dark green leaves are a lighter colour. Flowers bloom in the form of 15cm (6 inches) to 30cm (12-inches) wide, white, flat inflorescences. The fragrant flowers bloom in early summer and are soon followed by berry clusters. The smooth, greyish-brown bark becomes fissured and rough as the plant ages.
In its native habitat, elderberries grow in wetland sites near swamps, woodlands and lakes. The plants grow best in fertile, moist and well-drained soil with a preferred pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Elderberries are intolerant of wet or poorly drained ground. Recommended planting is as early as possible after the last frost in spring. The plants adapt well to areas of full to partial sun.