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Cathy Peck/Master Gardener: Elderberry deserves herbal honor

BEMIDJI — Recent gifts opened a new perspective on one of my favorite plants, Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis, aka, the elderberry.

This is not the early-blooming wild variety that bears umbels of red berries, but instead is the common black elderberry. It can grow 12 feet tall, blooms during the summer with creamy-white flowers in large flat to convex clusters on old and new wood. The fruit ripens a glistening purple-black during late August.

Flowers and fruit are both edible; all other parts of the plant are poisonous. Flowers can be used raw in salads, butters, and beverages, as garnishes, or battered and fried as elderfritters. The fruit can be used in a myriad of ways and the berries are starting to beckon me as they ripen.

People once believed spirits inhabited the plant. Reaching back to the time of Hippocrates, elderberry was often used medicinally. Contemporary research is reawakening to elderberry’s exciting possibilities. Today’s studies are in the herb’s properties in treating congestion, hay fever, as well as clinical trials in treating herpes, HIV and Epstein-Barr viruses. Do any of you remember stories of mulled elderberry wine for treating colds? Perhaps the folk remedies of the past had more to them than we thought.

At this time of year, I’m more interested in smelling the aroma of the berries cooking on the stove to make juice, syrup or jelly. A certain dear friend will probably be coming over for elderberry pie if we give him a call.

"Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook" by Dina Falconi and beautifully illustrated by Wendy Hollender offers exciting culinary possibilities new to me. A fruit coulis made with four cups of fully ripe elderberries blended with one-half cup maple syrup until smooth and then strained sounds tantalizing. The coulis can then be used to flavor butter, drizzled on cake or ice cream, or used in flavoring drinks, homemade ice cream, cakes, mousses, sauces or smoothies. Elderberry syrup can be added to brandy or vodka and served as a sipping cordial. Adding the syrup to club soda and serving it over ice can make a nonalcoholic and refreshing summer beverage. This versatile fruit can be used to make a deep, magenta-colored catsup. Tonight, I think I will try an elderberry vinaigrette on a chicken salad salad with fresh greens, a few remaining raspberries, feta and toasted almonds.

This hardy shrub grows best in humus-rich, moist soil in full sun to part-shade but ours grow in sandy soil we frequently water. The tall shrubs serve as a windbreak for our garden but also create a substantial backdrop, offering beautiful flowers for a long period of the summer, followed by drooping umbels of green fruit that ripen to nearly black beads of intense flavor, high in iron and rich in bioflavonoids. Elderberries are nutritionally rich for people but, in addition, the abundant shrubs are bird magnets. Soon waxwings, gold and purple finches, catbirds, robins, and scarlet tanagers will be making the branches bounce.

Elderberry is being recognized as the 2013 Herb of the Year. Some us — the birds and I — have recognized the value of this beautiful and amazing shrub for a long time.

To find reliable information about gardening and other horticultural topics, go to the University of Minnesota Extension website, www. gardeninfo/. Local master gardeners will also answer your gardening questions via a voice-mail service. Call 444-7916, leaving your phone number, name and the nature of your question. A volunteer master gardener will give you a call.