Archived Mountain Voices

Tasty right off the shrub


There’s a fly in the window

A dog in the yard

And a year since I saw you …

Feeling fine on elderberry wine.

Those were the days

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We’d lay in the haze

Forget depressive times

Round a tree in the summer

A fire in the fall …

The bottle went round …

Passed on from hand to hand …

— excerpted from lyrics by Elton John


Those who’ve participated in my natural history workshops know that I’m not a very good source for information regarding either edible plants or propagation. For the most part, I obtain vegetables at the grocery store or, in season, from our gardens. Propagation I mostly leave up to my wife. But there are exceptions.

One flowering wild plant that always gets me to thinking with my stomach is common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), which is just now coming into bloom in the lower elevations throughout Western North Carolina. You probably know it already; if not, look for white flat-topped loose clusters of flowers up to six inches or more broad that appear on a shrub 3- to 10-feet tall.

The flowering heads resemble several of the shrubs in the Viburnum genus, but elderberry has compound leaves that are divided so as to display five to eleven Leaflets. Vibrunum leaves aren’t divided.

Growing naturally or planted in full sun in moist soil (alongside seeps, ditches, or streams), the shrub makes a nice appearance. I have seen it on display in the zigs and zags of a rail fence. It catches the eye when placed in a woodland border

Various ornamental varieties have been developed in recent years. These display various leaf colors and patterns, as well as fancy names like “Aurea” and “Argentomarginata,” which features white-edged leaves. To my way of thinking, however, our plain old native homegrown elderberry species does just fine. It’s showy enough.  

In the fall, the plant bears deep purple or black fruits that sometimes weigh their branches to the ground. Many use them for making sweet breads or jam, but, in my experience, they are very irregular to taste when eaten directly off the shrub. Some fruits on a given plant can be delightfully tasty while those on an adjacent branch will be insipid.

Elderberry blossoms, however, never let you down. The entire flowering head fried up in a fritter batter makes a crunchy summertime treat that more than repays the effort of harvesting and preparation.

American Indians were (and are) the real experts on using plants as economical food sources. If a plant wasn’t worth their time, they didn’t fool with it. In Native Harvests: Recipes and Botanicals of the American Indian (Vintage Books, 1979), E. Barrie Kavasch provided the following recipe for Elder Blossom Fritters:

“Prepare a light batter, beating together 2 cups fine white cornmeal, 1 lightly beaten egg, 1 cup water, and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup. Heat 1/4 cup corn oil on a griddle and drop batter by large tablespoons onto it, immediately placing 1 elder-blossom flower-cluster in the center of each raw fritter and pressing lightly into the batter. Fry for 3 to 5 minutes, or until golden. Flip and fry for 3 minutes on the other side.  Drain on brown paper. Serve hot, sprinkled with additional loose blossoms and maple sugar. (This amount of batter is sufficient for preparing 16 flower clusters.)”

My wife, Elizabeth, makes a similar batter, substituting fine white flour for the cornmeal and beer for the water. She sometimes uses daylily or squash blossoms in place of the elderberry clusters.

I almost forgot to mention yet another positive attribute of this plant. I wonder who made the elderberry wine that inspired Elton John?

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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