Lessons of the Fig #1: Black Elderberry

Figs are rampant growers and precocious fruiters. This fig was photoed mid-March Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, growing on the strip in full leaf while few others trees were yet to leaf out. The main trunk pictured is about 8 inches in diameter. The tree-shrub is about 10-15 feet tall.

What fruit shrub or tree in northern and cold zones is similarly rampant and precocious (if not comparable in fruit flavor or size)? Black elderberry. In northern West Virginia, zone 6b, elderberry has begun to leaf out when nearly nothing else has. Elderberry trunks and limbs have a similar look to fig limbs externally, as well as a similar white pith look internally. Elderberry cuttings also root extremely easily, like fig cuttings. Unlike fig, elderberry is extremely hardy, to zone 3 or 4. Elderberry fruit is very bountiful though much less sweet and sizable than fig fruit. The best varieties have a good sweet-tart taste of small berry-type fruit borne on big clusters, umbels (umbrella shape).

Deer will devour elderberry plants unlike fig plants, but within two years at most, elderberry can be grown above deer browse and be left unprotected like the pruned shrubs pictured here. Elderberry like fig has a look that is unruly ornamental, with wonderfully showy blossoms (which are edible fresh and may be batter fried) unlike figs. The stems and leaves of black elderberry are toxic while the fruit is not.

Figs and black elderberry seem to be among the easiest of all fruiting shrubs or trees to grow – robust to the point of rampant. And very precocious to fruit, producing in the first years. Elderberry seems to be considerably more precocious to fruit and rampant to grow and more tolerant of drought than are even robust and resilient similar-sized fruit bushes like seaberry and Nanking cherry – possibly because neither are native to North America. While the added diversity of fruits such as seaberry (though invasive in certain situations) and Nanking cherry make them highly valuable in most settings, growers should be aware that elderberry is likely to be the far easier fruit to quickly establish and grow.

What cold climate ripe fruit is most like the fruit of a ripe fig? Pawpaw. A brief pawpaw to fig comparison will be made in a forthcoming “Lessons of the Fig” post.

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