Aronia and Elderberry: Thy Medicine
Written onAugust 24 , 2015
Aronia and elderberry are two fruits—native to Vermont and other places in the eastern United States—that are getting noticed by health-conscious consumers. The word on the street these days is “nutraceutical”—in this case, referring to berries that aren’t just nutritious but also have medicinal properties. Juice bar owners in New York City are apparently clamoring for aronia berries for their healthy raw juices and smoothies.
In Vermont, breweries, cideries, and distilleries are trying to source local elderberries for medicinal brews, and some farmers are taking notice by planting them. This year at our fruit nursery, aronia and elderberry plant sales to homeowners actually kept pace with more traditional fruit plants such as blueberry and raspberry. Big pharma watch out!
Both aronia and elderberry are high in antioxidants, vitamins C and A, minerals, and a variety of other plant compounds that exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-viral properties, to name just a few. Modern science is finally catching up to what Hippocrates recommended more than 2,000 years ago; “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.”
Historically, Native Americans used aronia (Aronia melanocarpa) for food, medicine, meat preservation, and plant dye. In the early 1900s, it was introduced into Russia and other European countries, where it has become an important juice berry (and is now exported to the U.S.). Likewise, elderberry (Sambucus nigra canadensis) and its flowers have been used for centuries for their medicinal qualities by Native Americans, Europeans, and European settlers. While elderflower cordials and elderberry syrups fell out of favor with Americans by the mid-1900s, they continued to be an important crop in Europe and still are today.
One Vermonter turned aronia farmer, Guy Edson (of the VIBE Farm in Plainfield), jumped on the super food train four years ago and planted 500 aronia plants on the advice of a New Jersey nursery man. They grew so well that he planted an additional 500 in 2014. It takes a few years to get a substantial harvest so this year he’ll have his first major crop, although last year he marketed berries to Healthy Living in Burlington and local health food stores. He’s starting an aronia u-pick operation which will open this September.
Todd Hardie of Thorn Hill Farm in Greensboro and Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick produces Caledonia Elderberry Cordial. Todd wanted a local source for his elderberries so this spring he planted over 2 acres of seven different elderberry cultivars, two of which came from those bred by Lewis Hill, a famous pioneer nursery man and horticulturist from Greensboro. “It was exciting to bring Lewis Hill’s two cultivars, Coomer and Berry Hill, back to Greensboro,” Todd noted. “I am the keeper of Lewis’s marked cultivars and our farm is less than a mile from Lewis’ nursery where he developed these elderberries.” The Caledonia Elderberry Cordial from Caledonia Spirits is a beautiful purple-colored cordial that combines the tartness of elderberry with the sweetness and smoothness of raw honey. An apple juice reduction from Champlain Orchards, Shoreham, is also used in their cordial.
Spoonful Herbals in Burlington, a collaborative effort of Rachael Keener and Kate Westdijk, two clinically trained community herbalists, will be offering a “Vermont Superberry Syrup” for one of their fall Community Supported Herbalism (CSH) shares. The syrup will include aronia, elderberry, black currant, and sea berry. Our own elderberry, ginger, and honey syrup is one of our farm’s best sellers at the Burlington Farmers’ Market.
Aronia berries and elderberries both freeze well, so they can be processed and used at a later time. Once frozen, elderberries can be shaken off their clusters to more easily remove the stems; when fresh, a sieve can be used to separate the berries from the stems. Aronia can be eaten raw, although the berries are quite astringent. Raw juice and smoothie recipes recommend mixing them in with sweeter berries like strawberries and blueberries. Elderberries should be cooked before consumption as some of the secondary plant compounds found in the berries can be harmful when eaten raw in sufficient quantities. Both berries make excellent jams, jellies, wines, and syrups. Elderberries in particular, given their small size, are ideal for processing by steam juicing using one of the popular steam juicers currently on the market.
Aronia and North American elderberry cultivars are easy to grow, disease-resistant, plentiful producers, and cold hardy for Vermont winters. Although very different in size and shape, both make attractive landscaping plants and are great for heavier soils or areas that occasionally flood. The waxy green leaves of the aronia bush turn bright red in the fall, making a spectacular native ornamental around the home. The bush grows to about 6 to 8 feet and spreads slowly by suckering from the roots. The pretty white flower clusters are attractive to bees and other pollinator insects. Aronia is also self-fertile, meaning that you only need one variety for pollination. Two common cultivars are “Viking” and “Nero.” For large-scale commercial production, aronia could be machine harvested.
Elderberry shrubs grow to 12 feet or so and once established send out suckers, which allow the shrubs to spread and become bushy. The elderflowers bloom in June and July giving off a subtle, sweet scent. (They can be used in syrups, cordials, and soft drinks.) The purple berries, which ripen in August and September, grow in clusters called panicles that make hand harvesting easy. There are more than a dozen elderberry cultivars suitable for Vermont; a few of the more common ones are York, Adams, Johns, and Nova. Two different varieties are needed for pollination. Because of their ability to withstand occasional flooding, wild elderberry shrubs are often found on the upper banks of streams and rivers, which means they are good plants for riparian zone restoration and can, in turn, help protect water quality in our streams and rivers by reducing bank erosion.
Ginger Nickerson of the University of Vermont Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture was recently awarded a grant from Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and the Northern Community Investment Corporation to look at the economic potential and commercial production needs of growing elderberry in Vermont. A production guide, videos, workshops, and an elderberry listserv are in the works and will help commercial growers get started in Vermont.
While aronia and elderberry don’t seem to be a favorite food for many insect pests, both are enjoyed by a variety of birds. This makes them great additions for enhancing wildlife but can make it difficult for commercial growers and even homeowners to beat the birds to the fruit. We net our plantings by making tall hoops from aluminum conduit. These hoops support the bird netting and allow for easy picking of berries without removing the net. If you don’t use netting, at least you’ll have healthy birds.
On our own farm, we have been expanding our plantings of aronia and elderberry in riparian zones that flood seasonally and in areas of our pollinator sanctuary that have heavy soils. These native plants provide food and habitat for pollinating insects and wildlife, and consumer demand for the berries is just beginning. The future looks bright for aronia and elderberry.
Aronia Jam Recipe
Rinse and de-stem one quart of berries and place in saucepan over medium heat.
Cook until soft and smash with spoon or potato masher.
Add sugar to taste and cook for roughly five minutes.
Test for gelling by placing a small amount on a cold plate and letting it cool. Cook longer if needed. Jam is ready when it gels.
Put it in jars and store in the refrigerator or freezer, or can in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.