B.C. grower finds niche in healthy berry

Elderberry packed with antioxidants | Berries are widely known in Europe but unique in Western Canada

YARROW, B.C. — A wheelbarrow emerges from the rows of flowering bushes where a couple has been picking the abundant white elderflowers.

Miriam Karp and Gordon Glanz say it takes about 25 flower heads to make a gallon of cordial, which is a mix for the vodka they make at their Odd Society distillery in Vancouver. Their processing window is narrow because the flowers oxidize and brown within a day of picking.

“We’re just experimenting with it,” said Karp.

The pair want to make a more affordable Canadian version of elderflower liqueur than the one now produced in France.

Glanz said a neighbouring microbrewery is making elderflower beer and the flowers could also be used to make wine, but there are a few hurdles to overcome first.

“There’s a vegetal undernote we have to separate. We’re working on a process to do that,” he said.

They searched the internet for the plants and found the Yarrow Elderberry Farm in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, run by Henning Jensen, the only such producer of flowers and berries in the West.

“Henning is way ahead of the curve,” said Glanz.

Jensen would like to see elderberry growers and processors setting up in B.C. A native of Denmark, he said elderberries are better known in Europe, where they can be found in an assortment of food and beverage products.

It’s also commonly used in cold prevention.

“It gives a boost to the immune system,” he said.

Research done by Denis Charlebois of Agriculture Canada’s Horticultural Research Centre in Quebec found the flowers to be rich in polyphenols, particularly cyanidin 3-glucoside. Its antioxidant capacity ranks high when compared to other well known fruits such as cranberries, mulberries and blueberries .

Jensen chose elderberries after seeking something that he could grow on his 3.5 acre property within a short drive of the resort community of Cultus Lake. He ruled out raspberries because they were too labour intensive and blueberries because too many plants are needed to be competitive.

“You’ve got to think outside of the box,” said Jensen, who planted 264 trees in 2000, in part to qualify as a grower and cut his taxes by more than half.

“It puts land in production rather than just growing dandelions.”

Jensen said elderberry is a wind pollinated low bush with good disease resistance that takes five years to come into full production.

Jensen uses a sulfur-dormant oil to keep ahead of fungus, which is prevalent in a valley with abundant rainfall.

He mows the grass between the rows, prunes trees beginning in December and burns the deadfall to minimize the spread of anthracnose.

The trees flower in May, and the berries can be harvested by mid-August. Stems are easily removed after freezing.

“You have to hand pick; it’s not a machine pickable crop,” he said.

His U-pick flowers sell for $25 for 150 flower heads and berries sell for $2.50 per pound. He also sells bushes and ships berries to mainly health related stores on demand.

Jensen markets through bcfarmfresh.com, advertising signs on a well travelled highway and word of mouth.

He keeps abreast of trends by attending conferences in Europe and consulting with agricultural experts such as Chuck Mouritzen, an agrologist with Southwest Crop Consulting in Chilliwack.

He said elderberries grow well in the Fraser Valley, where many wild species already exist.

Mouritzen said the market for fresh and processed fruit is small, but the flowers and berries are suitable for processing into wine, juice and nutraceuticals.

“The limiting factors to expansion will be finding a dependable market and a packer processor to handle and distribute the fruit,” said Mouritzen.

“I think the crop will remain minor for the foreseeable future, but there is room for some niche marketing expansion if some work is done on cultivars and marketing.”

Labour is also a hurdle because it is scarce and expensive, he said, citing the need to develop varieties suitable for mechanized harvesters.

The plants are hardy and vigorous and grow best in a moderate climate, although they will also survive in more severe environments, albeit with lower yields.

Mouritzen said the spotted wing drosophila is the biggest pest problem, laying its eggs in ripening fruit and spoiling the quality. The insect also affects blueberries, raspberries, cherries and strawberries.

“The pest is now one of our biggest problems in the fruit industry in North America and many other parts of the world,” said Mouritzen.