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Seeds of Opportunity: Elderberries

Steady interest from commercial growers in recent years and a market that’s ripe for the picking: elderberries are poised to become a strong choice for crop diversification – if growers can get organized.


April 1, 2022
By J.P. Antonacci

Topics
Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea), one of the 25 varieties grown at Elderberry Grove. All Photos courtesy of Jed Wiebe.

The Canadian elderberry market is ripe for the picking – if growers can get organized.

“When the pandemic hit last March, we sold what we would normally sell in six months in two weeks,” says Jed Wiebe, an elderberry farmer in Salmon Arm, B.C. “It was definitely encouragement to plan more.”

Wiebe is a Canadian elderberry pioneer in a young industry he says is poised to explode to meet a growing demand for value-added products infused with juice from the tiny superfruit.

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“They’re an emerging crop, for sure. There’s a huge amount of new elderberry going in,” Wiebe says, with the United States leading that growth at the moment. “The amount that’s being planted is doubling every couple years. There’s 30 times as much per capita in Europe, so the potential for our market to grow to that size seems fairly likely to me.”

Wiebe bases his confidence on the fact that American processors were importing most of their elderberries from Europe as recently as 2017.

“I know Canada was buying from the States at that time. So almost all the elderberry that is consumed in North America is imported,” he says. “In the States, if you grow elderberries, someone will buy it. I have people from the States messaging me all the time asking to buy my Canadian elderberries. It just seems like there’s a ton of room for growth.”

Last year, a major European food producer inquired about purchasing elderberries wholesale from Elderberry Grove, the farm Wiebe runs with his partner, Louise Lecouffe. But the duo needs every berry they can harvest for their own value-added products, which fly off the shelves.

Growing 25 varieties of elderberry on five acres – the latest two acres planted in April 2021 to keep up with the demand – the couple makes and sells elderberry juice, syrup and shrub through local farmers’ markets and health food stores in British Columbia, as well as shipping directly to customers through an online store.

“We saw it as an opportunity,” says Wiebe, who planted their first elderberry cuttings in 2017.

More popular in juiced form than as an eating berry, elderberries end up in jams and jellies, pies and cakes – most famously the Lemon Elderflower Royal Wedding Cake served at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – fruit bars, wine and spirits, while elderflowers can be used in tea, kombucha and cordials, or dusted with flour and turned into fritters. Niche markets also exist for elderberry juice as a natural food colourant and fabric dye, and for elderberry bark in leather tanning.

That both the berries and flowers have commercial uses make the plant particularly appealing to growers, says Evan Elford, new crop development specialist with Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

“Just the idea that you can get multiple uses from the same planting and potentially derive more income or just multiple markets from the same plant,” he says.

Interest in the native perennial crop has been steady in recent years from commercial growers in Ontario looking to diversify their crop mix and increase “direct market or farmers market sales,” Elford said.

“We did a series of webinars [in early 2021], and elderberry was one of the crops that was specifically requested by growers for a presentation.”

According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, there were 25 to 30 acres of elderberries grown in Ontario and around 240 acres nationwide. Over 20 Canadians growers listed elderberry among their crops, but Elford says some producers might not have been counted because they describe their operation as “mixed fruit production.” He expects the 2021 census will show those numbers have grown.

Nature’s medicine chest
Elderberries are becoming more popular as consumers look to eat healthier.

Before they started planting elderberries commercially, Wiebe and Lecouffe harvested wild berries to make a “shrub,” a mixture of elderberry juice, honey and vinegar that is prized for its antiviral properties.

The recipe dates back 2,500 years to Greek physician and “father of medicine” Hipprocrates, who called the elderberry plant nature’s “medicine chest.” Indigenous peoples in North America have long incorporated elderberry fruit, flowers and bark into remedies for colds, flu and other ailments.

Today, the vitamin-rich berries are sold fresh, frozen, dried and as concentrate to be used in supplements and health foods.

“It is satisfying to know it’s been a tried-and-true food that people have incorporated into their lives for thousands of years and found great benefit from,” Wiebe says.

Researchers have verified the antioxidant power and immunity-boosting properties of the European black elder – Sambucus nigra – which has been cultivated in Europe for thousands of years. Wiebe said there is every reason to think the native North American species, Sambucus canadensis, is similarly beneficial.

“The appeal of the berry is much more in its nutrition than in its sweetness – in its antiviral and anti-inflammatory value,” Wiebe says.

“I think people want to eat healthier food and be as healthy as possible so they can recover better or fight off colds and flus and COVIDs. That’s what I have gathered from our customers.”

Louise Lecouffe and Jed Wiebe have been growing elderberries on their farm, Elderberry Grove, in Salmon Arm, B.C., for years.

At home just about anywhere
An adaptable plant that can grow in a variety of conditions, elderberry is happiest in sandy or loamy soil that is moist and well-drained, with a pH level of 6.0 to 7.5.

Elderberry plants prefer temperate climates and open fields with good air movement and full sun, but also tolerate partial shade and frost, growing in hardiness zones 2 to 6, according to OMAFRA.

Plants can be propagated from hardwood or softwood cuttings, root cuttings or suckers, and should be irrigated during their first year, with subsequent irrigation as dictated by the weather. A hardy plant, elderberry grows quickly and can withstand drought and occasional flooding. They are suitable for riparian areas and their horizontal roots reduce erosion and nutrient runoff into waterways, making elderberry a good fit for riverbank naturalization.

Wiebe plants in hedgerows rather than the single trees seen in Europe to increase yield to roughly 10 pounds of fruit per mature plant every year.

“Elderberry is a good second or third crop to have on your farm to diversify,” Wiebe says, adding that elderberries are particularly suitable for small-scale farmers looking for a value-added offering.

Since plants can reach a height of 10 feet at maturity and stretch as much as six feet wide, Elford says farmers should leave one metre between plants and four to five metres between rows. He adds the standard site preparation advice for perennial plants applies to elderberries: test the soil for nutrient levels, add organic material as needed, get weed management under control, and – most importantly for fruit crops – have an irrigation and drainage system in place.

Choosing the right cultivars
To maximize yields, Elford advises elderberry growers to plant several different cultivars.

“Elderberries are partially self-fruitful. That means they do benefit from cross pollination between two or more cultivars,” he says.

Different cultivars produce berries of varying size and juiciness, with irrigation also a factor in how plump the berries get. Most commercial cultivars – including stalwarts like York, Scotia, Kent, Victoria and Adams – were developed in Canada and the United States in the mid-20th century to meet the demand for a stable natural replacement for synthetic food dyes.

American researchers recently developed newer varieties such as Bob Gordon, Ranch and Wyldewood that Wiebe calls “really productive but more climate-picky,” as they prefer the milder West Coast and southern climates to colder zones. Wiebe suggests growers do their homework and then try out a few varieties to see what works well together. “I have narrowed it down to my favourite 13 varieties,” he laughs. “It’s a perennial crop, so it takes a couple years to really figure it out.”

Wiebe also grows the pale blue Sambucus cerulea, an elderberry species native to British Columbia and the western United States.

“People are just now, in the last couple years, starting to research into growing cerulea commercially,” he says. “It’s delicious, [has the] same medicinal value, and [is] a super cool, drought-tolerant crop. Very minor [acreage] and very new, but there’s a lot of very excited people working on it.”

Both the berries and flowers of elderberries have commercial uses, making the plant particularly appealing to growers, according to OMAFRA’s Evan Elford.

To prune and protect
Birds are the main natural threat to commercial elderberry production. Growers can deploy netting and typical bird deterrents like noise cannons to keep the winged pests away. Cultivar selection can also help keep birds at bay, since the clusters of certain varieties of elderberry turn down as they ripen.

Netting can also guard against spotted wing drosophila, an invasive fruit fly first identified 10 years ago in Ontario that has since become a major issue for later-ripening berries. The flies lay eggs inside the fruit, potentially ruining entire crops. “Growers can check the pesticide labels that they would typically use for spotted wing management and just make sure elderberry is specifically listed on the product label,” Elford says.

Growers should also monitor elderberry shoots for the telltale holes made by the elder shoot borer, a moth that lays egg masses on the canes. “When the larvae start to feed, they’ll burrow into the elderberry shoots, and that causes the stems to wilt and bend over and break,” Elford says.

Pruning and destroying infested shoots and canes is vital to rooting out the borer and ensuring the crop’s survival. It’s also a good idea to prune older shoots and remove dead and broken canes every year in early spring. “The two-year-old and three-year-old canes will bear the most flower clusters and fruit clusters,” Elford says. “Removing anything that’s over three years old is a good practice at keeping the planting productive.”

Some growers mow their mature planting to encourage new cane growth, but Elford says that will likely mean a drop in production the following season.

The raw truth
Elderberry plants start producing fruit in their second year, hitting their stride in year three. White flowers bloom in July, with berries ripening in the fall.

Elderberries must be harvested by hand, but opinion is split on how labour-intensive that is.

“There are no mechanized options for harvesting elderberries, so that’s a big labour consideration,” Elford says.

Further complicating harvest, plants may ripen in waves depending on the amount of sunshine and age of the canes, so several hand harvests may be needed from mid-August to mid-September.

But Wiebe says having to harvest by hand should not limit farmers’ ability to grow more elderberry. “Elderberry is not labour-intensive to harvest in the same way a lot of other berries are. It’s way faster to harvest than, say, raspberries or strawberries,” he says.

Wiebe explains that elderberries grow in clusters, like grapes, but grape clusters need to be cut with scissors, which slows harvest. 

“With elderberry, you just grab the cluster and break it off,” he says. “So you can just cruise through the rows, fill up your basket and go get another one.”

Since the berries are frozen soon after harvest, workers don’t need to be as delicate as they would be when picking strawberries, where leaving a thumbprint in a berry renders it unsellable.

“It’s so much less to worry about,” Wiebe says. “As part of the juice extraction process, to improve efficiency of yield, you freeze the berries anyway.”

Elford says small-scale commercial growers in Ontario are more likely to sell berries fresh or frozen to processors, who will juice them, strain the seeds and stems, and then add the juice to jams, pies, wine and other value-added products.

“Otherwise, there is equipment that growers can purchase to be able to do further processing, whether it’s juicing and the like, on farm,” he says.

Elderberries are commonly thought to be toxic if eaten raw, but Elford says that’s a bit of a misconception. “The research has shown that the common elderberry, which is the one that we grow mainly here in Ontario and Canada, has very low toxicity in the fruit, whereas the European black elderberry has some mild toxicity.”

Berries from both plants are usually cooked to neutralize the trace amounts of hydrocyanic acid found inside, but Elford says North American elderberries are fine to eat raw “most of the time,” provided the leaves, stems and unripe berries are avoided. “Most people aren’t going to be eating the volumes that you would need to cause any kind of adverse reactions,” he says.

With an average diameter of 0.5 centimetres, fresh elderberries aren’t exactly easy to eat by the handful.

“It is not a dessert berry, unless you’ve cooked it and baked it into something,” Wiebe says, adding that “the briefest cooking,” such as pasteurizing for four minutes, makes the berries palatable.

”Super popular” in home gardens
Interest in elderberries extends beyond commercial operations. Veronique Alexandre, co-owner of Hardy Fruit Tree Nursery just north of Montreal, says elderberry shoots have become “a big hit” with home gardeners across the country.

Hardy Fruit Tree Nursery grows and sells fruit trees suitable for Canada’s northern climate. The nursery has stocked elderberry shoots since opening in 2013, and Alexandre says she gets good feedback from customers.

“They’re easy to grow, they grow fast, they produce fruit quickly – sometimes the first year people plant them, or if not, the second year,” she says, adding that the plant is forgiving no matter the setting, growing well in damp or dry soil.

Ontario Native Plants, a nursery in Hamilton, Ont., that caters to home gardeners, has also seen an uptick in elderberry orders.

“Elderberry shrubs are very popular with our customers. They are a great fruit-producing shrub to allow for cover and habitat for native birds and wildlife,” says manager Reyna Matties. “I think that with the pandemic and people working from home more, there has been a surge in gardening and planting in your own yard.”

Elderberry Grove is deluged with orders from gardeners who want to grow health-boosting food at home.

“We’ve sold so many. We just sell cuttings – we don’t sell started plants – but we had five times the demand this year as compared to other years,” Wiebe says.

“There was a bit of an elderberry shortage at the beginning of the pandemic. People don’t want to not be able to get elderberry the next time the shelves are empty. They want to have some elderberry for their family, so they want to grow their own.”

Alexandre says the need to process the berries limits their appeal as a food source for gardeners, who may instead use elderberry as an ornamental or landscape plant to add a splash of colour.

“People usually like to have fruit that they can eat fresh, as it is on the tree. Elderberry is not a big hit in terms of flavour just eaten raw like this,” she says.

“You can eat a few berries, but I’ve never met anyone who’s crazy about it and wants to eat a full bowl. It’s more like you will make a jam, you will make syrup – you will transform it, so that’s not for everyone. Commercially, I think that could be something interesting, because people are willing to buy local produce that’s ready-made for them to use. But at home, I think it will become more of an ornamental [plant].”

Sky’s the limit
Farmers intrigued by elderberry’s potential can meet Wiebe and other growers on Facebook, where forums for new and established growers add members every week.

Wiebe says that the information-sharing among “the super-friendly elderberry growing community” online is “inspiring.”

“The elderberry grower culture is ‘collaboration not competition,’” he says. “So you can go on and ask your questions and crowdsource the answers to your problems, and everybody will share their information and help you.”

That spirit of co-operation is due in part to all Canadian elderberry growers being pioneers in a burgeoning industry.

“This is a very, very young industry, and it’s still a niche crop,” Wiebe says.

“There’s very little information or research out there on growing elderberry, compared to, say, a grape. You know, some grape varieties are 2,000 years old. You could take a grape-growing course in university. You cannot for elderberry. You have to experiment and test things out.”

On the business side, Elford advises growers to have a plan before they plant.

“With elderberries, like with any specialty crop, it’s really important for growers to think about their markets first: where they’re going to sell it and how they’re going to sell the products,” he says.

“What we want to avoid is a grower coming to the point where they’re harvesting and then they’re saying, ‘Well, what am I going to do with the product?’ Or, ‘I don’t have enough people showing up to buy it.’ So doing that background market and sales planning is really important for niche crops like elderberries.”

The University of Vermont Extension and Iowa State University both released production and viability guides in 2016 in response to farmers and landowners looking to diversify their properties with specialty crops or eke some value out of marginal land. The schools concluded the crop had “serious potential” as a commercial crop, though at the time more research was needed. Five years later and that potential has only grown.

“Despite the fact that people have been planting a lot of elderberry in the last 10 years, there still was a total shortage” in the U.S. during the pandemic, Wiebe says, noting that the total acreage in North America is still only around 1,000 acres, with most of that in the United States, compared to 32,000 acres in Europe.

That tells him if Canadian elderberry growers can band together, the sky’s the limit.

“There are companies out there waiting to put in huge orders of elderberry, but we’re not going to be able to fill that demand until we have a large group of growers who are willing to get together and form a growers co-op,” he says. “We have to get ourselves organized and create an industry that co-operates in some way. The opportunity to grow is here.”