In 1906, Liberty Hyde Bailey, the father of American horticulture, predicted that America’s next big wild fruit, joining the ranks of strawberries, cranberries and gooseberries, would be the common elderberry, which he wrote was “almost certain to become the parent of a race of domestic fruit-bearing plants.”
Elderberries can be pressed into a magenta wine. The plant is a distant relative of honeysuckle, and its distinctive umbrella of cream-colored flowers makes an aromatic alcoholic cordial. Within the past decade, this elderflower elixir and its sui generis floral flavor has been given some credit for reviving the popularity of liqueurs. The most recognizable version behind the bar is a bottle of St. Germaine. The European elder (Sambucus nigra) gives Sambuca its name, although the modern version of the Italian liqueur tastes more like licorice.
Many alcoholic elder-containing concoctions came about, much like Angostura, as remedies, inspired by elder’s age-old medical claims; the plant was thought to have the ability to ward off colds, for instance. Some of these folk remedies may potentially have some basis. In 2009, researchers found that elderberry extracts in vitro compared favorably with Tamiflu® (a drug that is derived in part from star anise) in blocking the swine flu virus.
Despite its remarkable history, the primary use of elderberry today in the United States has little to do with anything Liberty Hyde Bailey or the early European apothecaries could have foreseen. Its pigments are extracted and made into a food-safe dye. And unless you’re a vegetarian or slaughtering your own meat, you’ve probably benefited from the elderberry. When the USDA inspects meat and its inspectors stamp a label—”U.S. Inspected” or “USDA Prime”—they use a purplish, food-safe dye that comes in part from elderberries.
Photogram of elderberry blossoms by Bertha E. Jaques/Smithsonian American Art Museum