Some of the native plants we use not only are beautiful and supportive of northern Michigan’s natural biodiversity but offer you even more. Common elderberry makes for delicious pie! The berries and juice are also great in jam, jelly, and shrub syrup for use in beverages. There are also many recipes using the plants’ flowers, including cordials and cakes (which can be decorated with gorgeous sugared elderflowers). Both the berries and flowers have traditional and indigenous medicinal uses, too. But, honestly, we’re partial to the pie.

A common elderberry plant in bloom

Before we get to that pie recipe and share a little background on this remarkable plant, though, a word of serious CAUTION is necessary. The common elderberry we are referring to is the American species, Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis. Another species of elderberry is common in North America: the red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa. The roots, stems, and leaves of both the red and common elderberry species can be toxic.

Many sources also recommend against eating the seeds of red elderberry, which can cause digestive upset and even death. Fortunately, as the name suggests, the berries of red elderberry are distinctly red. In contrast, the delightfully edible berries of common elderberry are black when ripe, as shown below.

Because of the berry color, Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis is also called black elderberry. Note that there is also a species of Sambucus nigra native to Europe that is sometimes planted in North America and widely called black elderberry. The European black elderberry also has edible berries and a long history of indigenous and traditional food and medicinal use.

Ripe black elderberries on a bush.

Common elderberrry is truly common in northern Michigan and is covered with beautiful white flowers in late June and early July. Native pollinators love these flowers! You’ll see the white blooms up and down the state along waterways and lakeshores, and even in the margins of highways. It was just such a display that inspired this post! The plant is also common in the sense that it has an amazing range, straddling the Americas from Canada through the United States into Central America and even South America.

Now, let’s talk pie! We like the award-winning family recipe shared on Food.com by RogerOH (who has many other recipes posted there as well). The men in the family have handed the recipe down for generations. Roger explains: “This is my father’s recipe. After many years, I finally got him to write it down. I go out in the fields about August 1 (in my area [Ohio]) and harvest some wild elderberries to make this delicious pie. My grandson took the top prize at the Future Farmers of America pie auction in 2006 with this pie.”

If the American black elderberry is not yet common in your landscape, we’d be happy to help you add some so you can easily start your own elderberry pie tradition. Ask Bret about Serviceberry, too. Oh, the wonders of Serviceberry….