European Elderberry

(Sambucus nigra)

European Elderberry in bloom
European Elderberry in bloom

Cultivars tested

‘Allesso’, ‘Korsor’, ‘Samdal’

Description and site preference

Plant type and size – deciduous shrub, typically up to 15 feet
Hardiness zone – 5-9
Exposure – full sun, part shade
Soil – loams with good organic matter, pH 5.5-6.5
Drainage – well-drained

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 1-2
Maintenance – low
Life of planting – 20+ years
Machine harvest potential – intermediate, specialized
Suitable markets – processed as juice, used as an ingredient

European Elderberry fruit
European Elderberry fruit

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – superfruit, extremely high in anthocyanins and flavinoids (Thole et al, 2006)
Adaptability – poorly adapted to test site (marginal hardiness)
Pest issues – some leaf spot, general decline not associated with specific pest
Invasive potential – none observed
Environmental benefits – insectary plant

Integration characteristics

Shared management – high, similar to American elderberry
Shared equipment – intermediate, same as American elderberry
Shared processing – high
Co-marketing – high

Integration potential – conditional

Could be a good addition to an integrated system, if trial plantings determine adaptability.

Dormant European Elderberry
Dormant European Elderberry

History and background

The European version of the American elderberry (or perhaps it is the other way around, since canadensis is now considered a subspecies of S. nigra), this plant is native to Europe and has all the characteristics and uses of its native American cousin. The fruit is slightly larger and darker. Although not well known in the U.S., there is another subspecies native to Europe (S. nigra alba) that is said to have white/green fruit good for fresh consumption.

In Europe, elder has a very long history of use as a medicinal herb. The plant has been called “the medicine chest of country people.” (See Plants for a Future reference, below.) In Europe, the flowers are used raw, cooked and dried. They are crisp, somewhat juicy and have an aromatic smell and flavor. Eaten fresh, they are also used too add a muscatel flavor to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (especially gooseberry jam). Elderberry flowers can also make a sparkling wine, while sweet tea is made from the dried flowers.

Elderberry (both American and European) is a good pioneering species for re-establishing woodlands. Fruit is readily consumed by birds, who then spread the seed.

Observations at Carandale Farm

  • Carandale had three European cultivars in the test plot, but none adapted well to their conditions.
  • They did not see major pest issues, but the plants lacked vigor and exhibited necrosis (tissue death around the fringes of the leaves) that appeared to be more nutrient-related than pathogenic.
  • The cymes were large and attractive but few in number.
  • New canes were sparse and tended to lie on the ground without support.
  • The plants declined over time.

‘Allesso’ was purchased from One Green World and planted in 2003. Three out of four plants survived transplanting. The survivors appeared to be fine going into the winter. Some cane dieback was observed in the spring of 2004, despite a relatively mild winter. Plants survived and produced some fruit in succeeding years, but they died back every winter and continued to decline until they died in 2009.

‘Korsor’ was the other variety purchased from One Green World and planted in 2003. All four plants survived and showed reasonably good vigor for the first three years. The fruit was good quality with large and attractive cymes. Symptoms of necrosis came on more slowly but eventually took its toll on overall vigor. Few new canes were produced, and the older canes became weak and unproductive. There were still a few live canes in 2012, but they are not expected to survive another winter.

‘Samdal’ was purchased from Nourse Farms in 2008. All four plants survived but never demonstrated much vigor. They were planted in a new location with more sun, but site conditions may have been inadequate. Lack of organic matter in the clay loam soil may have contributed to the poor response. Carandale did not observe necrotic symptoms, but the plants simply failed to adapt.

Discussion

European elderberry is not as cold hardy as the American version. Temperature stress may have been a contributing factor for its poor performance at Carandale, but was probably not the major factor. Carandale encourages trials in other environments. If it can be successfully grown, literature suggests European elderberry may have advantages over its American counterpart. Juice quality and yield potential could be better. Carandale found no direct literature comparison of flower quality. In Carandale’s limited experience, the cyme and flower size favors the European cultivars, which may account for higher yield and make them better adapted for culinary use.

There has been more emphasis on cultivar selection in Europe, resulting in genetic diversity. The current interest in elderberry breeding and cultivar selection in the U.S. may reduce the quality and yield gap between American and European cultivars.

There are many other European cultivars, including ‘Samyl’, which is highly recommended for yield and desirable growth habit (producing new suckers annually). ‘Samdal’ could also be re-trialed in a better location, but Carandale intends to concentrate efforts on American elderberry, which has similar fruiting characteristics and proven adaptability.

References

Demand Increasing for Aronia and elderberry in North America,” by Steven A, McKay, Hudson Valley Fruit program, Columbia County Cooperative Extension, Hudson, NY, 2006

Plants for a Future: Sambucus nigra (European Elderberry)

Thole, JM, TM Burns Kraft, LA Sueiro, YH Kang, JJ Gills, M Cuendet, JM Pezzuto, DS Seigler and MA Lila. 2006. “A Comparative Evaluation of the Anticancer Properties of European and American Elderberry Fruits.” Journal of Medicinal Food, 9(4): 498-504. <http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jmf.2006.9.498>, accessed 6/24/13.

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