Elderberry is related to Honeysuckle. There are two main varieties of Elderberry: European Elder, and American Elder (aka Common Elder.)
Elderberry produce tiny white flowers in masses, or umbrels, like the tiny white flowers on Queen Anne's Lace or Cow's Parsley, that can be up to 30 cm (12 inches) across. From these, the berries grow in clusters or sprays. Only the berries should be used, because the flowers, leaves and bark have some toxins in them. The berries must be ripe; unripe ones are a bit toxic.
The American Elder is found in the eastern half of North America. It grows wild as a perennial shrub, anywhere from 1 metre to 4 metres (3 to 13 feet) tall. The shrubs can pollinate themselves, but produce more fruit if cross-pollinated. Its berries are first red, then turning blue then finally a blackish purple as they ripen. The berries are not really sold commercially.
The European Elder grows as a tree up to 9 metres (30 feet) tall.
From flowers, the fruit takes 5 to 15 days to appear. The fruit is ripe when the weight of the fruit starts to drag the clusters down. A berry will contain 3 to 5 seeds. Both North American and European berries contain very little pectin. The berries are not eaten raw because they are too sour. They are usually cooked for wines, jellies, pies, syrups or made into wine.
Crushed Elderberry leaves, bark and stem have a very rank smell to them. North American Indians used to use these as an insect repellant.
A version of the American Elder called Blue Elder (Sambucus cerulea Raf aka Sambucus glauca) grows in the Western half of North America. The tree can grow up to 17 metres (55 feet) tall.
Another variety, the Red Elderberry (Sambucus pubens) has red fruits which are toxic; the fruit grows in rounded, ball clusters, instead of flat clusters. Avoid the berries and the flowers from this tree.
Elderberries are used in making the liqueur called "Sambuca."
Elderberry WineSome people mash the berries and use them raw, some say it is better to cook the berries first to destroy any toxins in them, and to destroy the Samburgrinic acid, which has a smell and taste that many people don't like. When the berries ferment, they exude in the first week some green waxy stuff. Elderberry Wine wasn't always fully fermented into wine. Elderberry Wine is often used to flavour and colour Red Windsor cheese.
Elderberry PieTo make Elderberry Pie, washed, stemmed Elderberries are spread out in a pie shell, then sprinkled with sugar and a thickener such as flour or tapioca. They are then covered with a top crust and baked 30 to 40 minutes.
Fried Elder FlowersThe flower is sometimes referred to as "Elderblow." A flower head is dipped in batter and deep fried, then sprinkled with icing sugar. In Italy, this is called Fritelle di Fiori di Sambuca. They add some grappa to the batter. Some people also use the flowers to make tea with. You should not pick the flowers to eat unless you are absolutely sure that the bush you are picking them from is not the poisonous red one.
They will colour your hands for a while if you don't wear rubber gloves.
The seeds of Red Elder contain traces of the alkaloid sambucine and hydrocyanic acid (the same as is in apple seeds). Though some say the red are safe to eat they are if cooked, and others say they are only safe if boiled then strained to get the seeds out, most authorities say to avoid them entirely under any circumstance or preparation method. In fact, many sources advise avoiding all North American types of elderberries and only using European varieties.
In England, some estates allowed the poor to harvest as much elder wood as they wanted. The wood is a mediocre burning wood, though: it won't coal, or last through the night, and doesn't give off much heat compared to other woods.
"Hot elder wine was sold in the winter in penny and halfpenny measures, with a small piece of toast alongside, to dip into the wine. This, said one street seller, appealed to the working classes, 'but not the better order of them.'" -- Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City. London: Atlantic Books. 2012. Page 287.