Elderberries have many health benefits and has a centuries-long tradition of being used as an herbal remedy for the flu.
The Missouri Elderberry
Elderberries could elbow out all the bottles in your medicine cabinet. Nearly 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates called the elder plant “the medicine chest of the country people,” says Deni Phillips in the Elderberry Value-Added Sourcebook. In fact, the elder leaf, flower, and berry can be used in salves, infusions, and syrups to relieve coughs, colic, diarrhea, sore throat, asthma, and the flu.
And get this: You can chase mice away with an infusion made with fresh elder leaves or use elder flowers to soothe a burn. It’s a talented plant. And it’s native to Missouri.
Native North American elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) grow in Missouri without special attention, even sprouting along road ditches in summer, and they thrive here with good husbandry. The plants are lush, loaded with huge delicate white blossoms in the spring or rich purple BB-sized fruit in mid- to late summer. Some forward-thinking farmers and university researchers want to encourage this abundance.
They want improved cultivars, developed from Missouri’s wild elderberries, planted in rows for harvest as the next super food. Like the pomegranate, the acai berry, and others lauded in the media, the elderberry is high in antioxidants. Its flu-fighting ability is prized, but it may also lower cholesterol, boost the immune system, improve vision, and help heart health. Folk remedies in North America, Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa have told us so for centuries.
Elderberries may be small, but they’re mighty. The elder leaf, flower, and berry are loaded with polyphenols, flavonoids, and anthocyanins—all of which host the elder’s antioxidant capacity. Antioxidants neutralize free radical buildup, but it’s the balance between naturally occurring free radicals and antioxidants that fights stress effects to and in our bodies.
The elder’s small clusters of berries are also a high producer for farmers. Tim Wright and Larry Buck of Hermann planted 900 elderberry plants on an acre in 2006, and the plants produced at a level that encouraged Tim to plant three additional acres of elderberries in 2010 and two more acres in 2011. He mostly grows the Bob Gordon variety of elderberry but is testing Wyldewood and Ranch varieties. He predicts his yield should be around 3,000 to 5,000 pounds per acre.
Two thousand of the tiny berries will make one pound, and it takes 20 pounds to make a gallon of juice. After the elderberry plants mature for three to four years, Michael Gold, research professor and associate director of the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri, says they could produce as much as three to four tons of berries per acre. With Missouri aiming for 100 acres of elderberry plants in production in the near future, there’s a bumper crop on the horizon.
That high return from a small acreage is not only drawing the attention of farmers, but researchers as well. MU and Missouri State University began to study local wild elderberries in 1997 to identify the cultivars that best withstood the Missouri freeze-thaw cycle and produced high yields. They found Bob Gordon, Wyldewood, Ranch, and Adams II elderberry cultivars to be good bets for farmers. Research at the Center for Agroforestry also focuses on elderberry insect and disease susceptibility, markets for the new crop, and its place in our health and diet.
The Missouri River Hills Elderberry Producers, led by Terry Durham of Hartsburg, process elderberries and market products made with the fruit products such as elderberry jelly, pure elderberry juice, or throat coat and herbal cordial.
Frozen berries sell out fast, but when available they ship for $21 for three and a half pounds (order online at www.elderberrylife.com). The processing, done by Persimmon Hill Farms near Springfield, is minimal, and the deep purple juice is loaded with antioxidants. One ounce per day, says Terry, will ward off the flu, “with no side effects.”
So why not grow a plant that produces abundantly in Missouri, has healthy benefits, can run mice out of your house, or soothe a burn? Two things need to come together to make it work well for Missouri farmers, Terry says. A mechanized harvester is needed. Right now, the elder can be mechanically planted, pruned, and destemmed. Although a mechanized harvester is being developed, harvesting is still done by hand. The other important component is the market. Terry currently runs an elderberry route that includes stores such as Clover’s, Root Cellar, and World Harvest in Columbia, and Sappington’s Market and Maude’s in St. Louis. The Natural Girls in Rolla buys River Hills Harvest products as do nearly 20 Hy-Vee groceries in Missouri. But super-food status for elder depends on getting the word out and becoming an ingredient in more widely marketed foods. In Europe, products such as the cold and flu syrup Sambucol keep the demand for elderberries high. In the United States, the use of elderberry as an ingredient is still developing, and most elderberries are imported. “That’s about 60 metric tons of berries,” Terry says, that could be raised here. Most imported berries are used in pharmaceuticals, some wines, and food products.
Close to home, buyers such as Wyldewood Cellars in Mulvane, Kansas, use elderberry fruit to make sweet as well as dry wines. The winemakers partner with Missouri State University and MU researchers as well as Missouri farmers to source their berries regionally.
Terry’s Eridu Farm in Hartsburg is the single largest planted acreage of elderberries in the country. He hosts elderberry workshops to encourage farmers to consider the crop. “The first workshop we had eight attendees, the next we had 32, and two summers ago we had 100.”
Terry is a seasoned grower in Missouri. He grew vegetables and did business as a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farm for 11 years prior to his interest in elderberries.
He’s been a part of the Ozark Organic Growers Association, the Missouri Vegetable Growers Association, and the Missouri Organic Association. “I’ve been working on organizing farmers for over 26 years,” he says.
In 2004, he used cuttings from existing elderberry plants to propagate his own stock in his basement. Today, he harvests 32 acres of the plants by hand with seasonal help. He has plans to grow an additional 18 acres of elderberries. For him, it’s more than the end product that’s important, though.
“The intriguing thing is that it’s a native plant. I grow all native plants here,” he says of Eridu Farm. He sows indigenous grasses between the rows of elderberries and sees benefit to this restoration. “This was a soybean field for years. Now, the soil is coming back to life.”
Alongside good land stewardship, locally raised elderberries are a strong draw for consumers, Michael at the Center for Agroforestry says. Plus, consumers already recognize that high levels of antioxidants are healthy.
“I talk with people who grow elderberries,” Michael says, “people who work on production, value-added products, like elderberry wine, and nutrition. Across the board, there’s more and more interest in elderberries.”
Markets for elderberries include herbal remedies such as the Elderberry Ginger Syrup, which was the first place winner in Tinctures and Extracts at the 2007 International Herb Symposium. The fruit is also used in wine making, and the pulp remaining after elderberries are pressed can be reconstituted in other value-added products, Michael says.
With all this interest, it looks as if elderberry cultivation will continue to rise in Missouri.
The plant has history on its side: besides being native here and known for its herbal medical cures, the elderberry also carries a lot of ancient superstition on its tiny berry orbs.
Did you know that the elder was a sacred tree to the Druids? In Welsh tradition, if you stand under an elder on Midsummer’s Eve, you can have visions of otherworldly creatures, seeing the “little people.”
Maybe those folks ate the berries before they were completely ripe and before they were cooked. The elderberry is toxic in that form, and could produce visions as well as more hazardous effects.
But it is the good effects on health that have Missouri farmers, consumers, and researchers intrigued and hungry for elderberries.