A short time ago, a European couple visited my small suburban nursery in search of some berry plants for their newly acquired home. As we spoke, the husband, an architect, puzzled over the American habit of planting large lawns dotted with only a few decorative trees. We continued our philosophical musings for a while, and then they packed up their plants and headed home.
Not everyone yearns to transform their yard into a cornucopia of edible delights. However, even if you’re a fan of lush, perfectly manicured lawns, you can still add a few multiuse plants that will both look nice and provide nutritious edibles for you and your family.
Berry plants are particularly useful for this purpose because many of them are attractive perennial shrubs with fruits that are both delicious and healthful. Beyond their ornamental and nutritive value, homegrown berries are also much more affordable than the store-bought alternatives, they taste much better when picked fresh off a vine, and home gardeners can grow a number of unique berries that are nearly impossible to find fresh at big-box stores.
Aronia and elderberry are two alternative berries that are sometimes referred to as “superberries” because of their extremely high antioxidant levels. Both are easy to grow at home and will produce an abundant, nutritious harvest. Even if you don’t eat all the berries, they’ll attract many appreciative birds to your property, which will bring added visual interest and help support local wildlife.
American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
You can find the American elderberry, which is also known as common elderberry, growing wild throughout most of the United States along fence rows, roadsides, streambanks, and thickets. Over the years, some plant varieties were selected that showed particularly attractive traits, such as larger berries or more vigorous growth, including ‘Adams,’ ‘York,’ ‘Nova,’ and ‘Johns.’
American elderberries grow as canes that only provide fruit for a few years. The best berries grow on first- and second-year canes. After the first few years, the canes begin to lose productivity, so consider cutting them out in late fall. For best results, maintain a mix of brand-new and 1-year-old canes. If this sounds like too much trouble, then another option is to cut the entire plant down to the ground every fall. This process will make managing the plants easier, and although you’ll get fewer berries as a result, you’ll still have plenty left to enjoy.
American elderberries prefer full sun to partial shade. They tolerate a wide range of soils, but prefer beds with rich and somewhat moist soil that’s slightly acidic. American elderberry will benefit from cross-pollination between two different cultivars, but even if you have only one cultivar, you’ll still get a decent crop of berries and the lower pollination rates will not affect flower yield.
It’s easy to overlook how rapidly American elderberry spreads. Each year, your plant or plants will expand their territory by sending out rhizomes that may appear many feet from the original plant; eventually, you’ll have more of a thicket than a single plant or row of plants. Manage this spreading habit by cutting out new suckers. American elderberry canes will grow 6 to 12 feet tall, depending on your conditions. They make an excellent screen during the growing season, but because they lose their leaves (and especially if you cut them down), they can’t serve this purpose during winter months.
European Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
European elderberry, also known as black elderberry, is less common in the United States and Canada and is generally only available from mail-order nurseries. This species isn’t as hardy as the native American elderberry, but it’s worth trying. European elderberry can tolerate full sun to partial shade and a wide variety of soil conditions.
The most notable difference between the European elderberry and its American cousin is that it develops multiple trunks rather than dozens of canes. The plant is more a tree than a shrub, growing upward of 19 feet tall. Because berries only form on second-year growth, pruning consists more of keeping the branches thinned for good light penetration and airflow, and occasionally encouraging new growth at the base.
The major benefit of European elderberry comes from the flower clusters. Elderberry forms large clusters of creamy-white flowers called “umbels,” followed by copious amounts of berries, which are technically drupes. While the American variety has flowers with a light fragrance, the European elderberry flowers are very fragrant. Traditionally, elderflowers are used for a variety of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, including the well-known liqueur St. Germain (see Elderflower Syrup Recipe).
Don’t harvest all the fragrant flowers, though, because after they bloom, the berries will start to form in their place. The berries should be ready to harvest by about mid-July, but this will vary slightly depending on where you live. Wait to harvest the berries until they’re dark purple, almost black. To harvest, cut the umbels and put them in a shallow basket or tray. I’ve found the easiest method is to then put the entire umbel in the freezer. After it’s frozen, it’s much easier to strip the berries off the stems without squishing them.
Don’t eat raw elderberries or any green parts of the elder tree, all of which are poisonous. Cooking neutralizes the poisonous compounds, which is why all reputable recipes that call for elderberries will call for heat processing.
Most of the scientific research regarding elderberry is for the European variety (S. nigra). However, the American elderberry (S. canadensis) — which is the variety that North American foragers will more likely encounter — has historically been used for many of the same purposes. Use elderflowers as a diaphoretic to induce perspiration, which helps break a fever. Try blending elderflower with equal parts yarrow and peppermint leaf for a tea that can help relieve fevers associated with colds. When tested in vitro, elderberry fruit extract (S. nigra) was as effective as the common antiviral medications Amantadine and Tamiflu, showing that its historical uses as an immune-boosting cold and flu remedy has scientific backing.
Aronia (Aronia spp.)
I’ve often wondered why more people don’t grow aronia. Commonly known as chokeberry, the attractive, multi-stemmed plant has three-season interest. Consider planting aronia in a spot where it can serve double duty as a privacy screen or hedge because of its lush foliage. In spring, fragrant white flowers cover the plant before giving way to small green berries. By late summer, the berries will increase in size and become a dark purplish-black color. The production of berries is so substantial that branches frequently droop under their weight. For the best nutritive value, pick the berries when they’re fully colored and before they start to wrinkle later in the season. By fall, much of the foliage will have turned red, which adds a last bit of visual interest before the shrubs lose all their leaves for winter.
Aronia isn’t fussy about growing conditions, though it will do best in reasonably rich soil with good drainage and in partial to full sun. With adequate growing conditions, aronia will grow up to 7 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide. Fortunately, aronia doesn’t seem to be bothered by pests or disease.
Aronia berries are not a sweet treat to thoughtlessly toss into your mouth while reading or watching television. They can be quite astringent and evoke a wide range of responses. I’ve seen some people spit them out, and I’ve seen other people eat them like others eat grapes or strawberries. That said, aronia’s real use is as a processing berry. Add the small berries to smoothies, yogurt, muffins, or oatmeal. They make a good jam or jelly and create a wonderfully colored wine. You can juice aronia berries, but consider mixing the tart juice with other sweeter juices for a more palatable blend.
Aronia berries are one of the richest plant sources of phenolic substances, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antioxidative, and antiplatelet activities. Scientists at the University of Maryland investigated the impact of several fruits against colon cancer and found that aronia had the most potent effects. The berries are also high in vitamin C, making them a natural and healthful supplement.
Aronia and elderberry are two of the easiest and most exciting superberries you can add to your landscape. Even beginning gardeners can’t go wrong with these choices. After you’ve gotten used to the idea of edible landscaping, you can add any number of other perennials to your property for more beauty and to help keep your family fed and nourished.
Nurseries typically ship berry starts in March and April, so place your order right away to include these plants in your 2018 garden.
Michael Brown uses his New Jersey backyard to explore how small-scale growers such as himself can succeed in suburban agriculture. Find him online at Pitspone Farm.