LA CROSSE, Wis. – They call him the elderberry man. That’s because of Terry Durham’s passion for the small berries and his zealous efforts in promoting and developing the plants. Durham shared his experiences and knowledge recently at the MOSES organic conference held in La Crosse.

Elderberries are small purple berries that grow wild all across North America. Growing along the roads next to corn and bean fields in Wisconsin gives them a reputation as a noxious weed, but those little fruit are becoming a big product.

Although elderberries have been used throughout history, they are now becoming a mainstream crop. Scientific studies show they have excellent levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. The ancient physician Hippocrates thought every physical problem could be cured by elderberries. Commercial use now is growing as people learn to use every part of the plant – including the berries, flowers, stems and bark.

Culinary uses for the fruit include pies, scones, jelly, energy bars and juice.

“Juice is closest to the farmers,” said Durham because there is a minimum of processing with a minimum of equipment.

Elderberries can also be used as a colorant, tincture and vinegar, and can be made into wine. The bushes also make good wildlife habitat.

Although elderberries have grown in Europe since ancient times, their varieties contain a small amount of cyanide; they don’t grow well in America. When researchers discovered that North American berries are quite hardy and lack cyanide, the search began for cultivars. Durham became the No. 1 champion of elderberries, collecting varieties while learning to plant, process and market them.

Currently there are three main cultivars for commercial production – Adams II, Wyldwood and Bob Gordon. Adams II is considered an heirloom variety that’s not as juicy as the other two. It doesn’t ripen evenly, which is a consideration for commercial harvesting.

Wyldwood berries are popular among growers because they are vigorous with an abundant yield. They’re easy to harvest and can be picked twice. The Bob Gordon-type has large heads that droop down in an umbrella shape, making them more difficult for birds to eat. They have an increased brix of 11.6, making them good for wine.

Planting is done in the spring using dormant cuttings from the previous year’s plants. In the north it can be advantageous to start indoors so the plants have a good start, but in southern climes they are direct-planted outside.

Elderberries are planted in rows 10 to 12 feet apart, with 4 to 5 feet between plants. Cover crops such as alsike or red clover are planted between rows to prevent weed growth. The berries are sensitive to herbicides. Fertilizer requirements are similar to corn. Durham suggests 80 to 100 pounds nitrogen to give them a fast start in the spring. Applying rock phosphates in the fall promotes root growth.

Of the flowers, 20 percent to 30 percent can be harvested without any loss of yield in the berries.

“We’re just beginning to work with flowers,” Durham said. “Flowers have lots of potential for a profitable crop.”

Current uses are for tea and dietary supplements.

Durham said he sees the elderberry as a profitable crop with a lot of possibilities for expansion of markets.

“There are so many things we can make with them,” he said.

Durham established River Hills Harvest to connect growers, market products and promote elderberries. Visit riverhillsharvest.com for more information.

LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. She is the author of “Haffa Huffy or All Huffey.”