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Few plants offer as much potential as the elderberry. It’s easy to grow and can be used for a variety of culinary and medicinal purposes, which makes it an immediate asset to any homestead, farm, or spacious garden. These properties make the plant desirable not only for use at home, but also as a commercial crop.
Most people associate elderberry with its fruit — clusters of dark-purple berries that can easily weigh a pound or more. But the alternative crop that the plants produce, the fragrant flowers, is often overlooked. Fleeting elderflowers are popular as cordials and teas, turned into fritters and jellies, and included in homemade skin care products and anti-inflammatory medicines. The diverse and delicious blooms are as prized in the marketplace as the berries they become when left on the branch. All it takes is thoughtful planting and the right buyer, and you could corner the market on elderflowers in your area.
Choosing Your Crop
Two major cultivars of elderberry are grown commercially across the United States, while a distant third that’s native to the West Coast is rarely used for commercial purposes.
Sambucus canadensis, commonly referred to as “American” or “common” elderberry, is native to the large part of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. It grows as large canes, and will fruit in both its first and second year of growth. The plants spread via underground rhizomes.
Many of the veteran S. canadensis cultivars available today were selected from the wild along the East Coast. However, in the past few years, a number of new cultivars have been introduced that are native to the Midwest. Some growers may prefer seedlings native to their particular locations, but the elderflowers and berries from these plants can be smaller (and therefore more time-consuming to harvest) than their wild-selected cousins.
Common elderberry flowers
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S. nigra is native to large parts of Europe, and therefore commonly referred to as “European” elderberry, or sometimes “black” elderberry. A number of selected cultivars are available in the U.S., although this cultivar is somewhat less hardy than S. canadensis. The plant grows more like a multi-trunk shrub or small tree and will fruit from its second year of growth on. Elderflowers from this species are typically much more fragrant than their American cousins.
S. nigra ssp. caerulea, commonly referred to as “blue” elderberry, is native to the West Coast of North America. While it can be difficult to find trustworthy seeds or cuttings of this crop, the plants can grow quite large when cultivated. Like S. nigra, they’re more like shrubs or small trees than they are like the canes of S. canadensis. Their flowers are also quite fragrant.
Even with these typical traits, there can be diversity among elderberry plants depending on growing conditions and location. While the S. canadensis that I grow has no fragrance, I’ve heard from growers in different parts of the U.S. that their S. canadensis plants have a strong scent. Trial various cultivars and see what works best for you.
Harvesting Fragrant Elderflowers
An easy, no-cost way to start with elderflowers is by foraging. During spring, be on the lookout for the telltale white flower clusters of the elderberry along paths and roadsides. You can gather these to use as fresh samples for local customers, or to perfect your drying techniques for later sale as tea.
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Elderberry plants are easy to start from cuttings, so if you know someone growing elderberry, you should have access to a number of cuttings. You can also get cuttings from wild elderberry plants. Cuttings of S. canadensis planted in early spring will give you a modest harvest the following year that will increase over the next few years. Cuttings of S. nigra will take an additional year to produce.
If you’ve decided to grow the plant to gather an elderflower crop, you can approach it in several ways.
You might focus solely on elderflowers, harvesting all the clusters that bloom during the season. Mark Mooradian of Karnak Farm in Saco, Maine, is an example of a farmer focusing solely on elderflowers. He has 1,200 S. canadensis plants from which he harvests. Starting in late June, he picks flowers daily for about three and a half weeks, and then dries them in a solar dryer for later sale to several large loose-leaf tea companies.
As a grower, you might also decide to focus primarily on the elderberry fruit, but you could still harvest flowers from low-lying and weak branches that can’t support clusters of berries. Using flowers that would probably not develop into quality berries later in the season will allow you to enjoy both a flower harvest and a fruit harvest.
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If you’re interested in berries, but want more flowers than the previous method might give you, you can focus on harvesting elderflowers only from plants susceptible to heavy bird pressure. I have several plantings of elderberry. One site, near a plot of trees that serves as wildlife cover, is particularly vulnerable to bird predation. In years past, I’ve regularly lost 60 percent of my berries. I finally decided that I would harvest just the elderflowers from this site, thus bypassing the potential bird problem and gathering a sizable number of flower clusters each year.
With such a short window of time before elderflowers become elderberries, harvesting is essential. Elderflowers get their fragrance and flavor from the pollen of the tiny flowers in the cluster, so you should harvest clusters when the majority of the blooms are freshly opened. Clusters where the flowers are brown and the petals falling away are past their prime, and should be left to develop into berries.
Pick flowers in the morning after the dew has dried, but before the heat of the day starts to wilt the blossoms. If there’s a heavy rain during harvest time, try to wait a full day before gathering more elderflowers, since rain washes away much of the pollen.
Elderflowers on the Market
Elderflowers can be sold either fresh, as clusters, or dried. At my farm, I’ve found a ready market for fresh flower clusters from the fragrant S. nigra cultivars. They’re eagerly sought after by restaurants, bars, breweries, cideries, and other food businesses, and I charge $12 to $18 per pound of flowers, depending on the elderberry cultivar and the customer.
Laura Murphy of LA Murphy Farms in Monterey County, California, has a quarter-acre devoted to elderberry plants — a mix of S. canadensis and S. caerulea. She does market some of her berries, and also sells the flowers of both cultivars fresh, primarily to restaurants. If she were to expand, she says she would focus more heavily on elderflowers, especially the more fragrant S. caerulea.
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Liz Farrell of Fat Stone Farm has found it more worthwhile to market dried flowers, which she sells through her website in small quantities to individuals.
If you’re looking into markets for your elderflower harvest, consider these options:
- Upscale bars and restaurants are best for fresh flowers with fragrance, since these are the traditional ingredient for a variety of beverages. Chefs will also use fresh flowers in sorbet, baked goods (think: the wedding cake for the most recent royal wedding), and even as a garnish.
- Breweries, cideries, and wineries readily seek out fragrant fresh and dried elderflowers (as well as elderberries).
- Tea producers are best for dried flowers. Fragrance doesn’t affect the medicinal properties, so all elderflower is good for tea.
- Herbalists will use both fresh and dried flowers to create a range of products, including teas, tinctures, and skin and hair care products.
- Value-added products, which are defined as “a change in the physical state or form of the product (such as milling wheat into flour),” might mean creating drinks or jams from your elderflower harvest to sell. Before you begin with value-added products, check your local regulations.
Whether you want to grow 10 or 1,000 plants, elderflowers (and elderberries) have great potential as an additional and atypical income stream for your farm or homestead. Try something new, and introduce your local community to this popular crop that was once considered secondary.
Michael Brown owns Pitspone Farm, a small-acreage suburban farm and nursery that focuses on growing and selling uncommon berries. Questions and comments are always welcome at Pitspone Farm.