US elderberry specialist pushes value of American species, works to build up acreage

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - Adam88rx
©Getty Images - Adam88rx

Related tags Immune health elderberry

A US-based elderberry producer is working to increase domestic production as well as to clear up what it considers to be misunderstandings about the phytonutrient content of the various species.

Purdy, MO-based Innovative Natural Solutions has been bring elderberry ingredients to market for several years, partly in partnership with Norm’s Farms.  While the company at the moment relies heavily on European supplies of European black elderberry (Sambuccus nigra​), it is also developing new supplies of the American species (Sambuccus canadensis)​.

Is one species clearly superior?

Devon Bennett, president of INS, said there has been some of what he termed misconceptions in the marketplace concerning the relative value of the two species.  From an ethnobotanical perspective, they have been used interchangeably.  But there is more market and research history with nigra​ as opposed to canadensis,​ which has led some marketers to claim the species is superior from a bioactivity standpoint.

Bennett counters that INS has partnered with berry expert Christian Krueger from the University of Wisconsin Madison to develop a detailed phytochemical fingerprint of Sambuccus canadensis​. Based on that information, Bennett said that while certainly there are differences between the species, in his company’s view those differences are not great enough to support a claim of clear superiority of one species over another.

“European elderberry is a great product.  I agree with that. I just don’t think we should put off the canadensis,”​ Bennett told NutraIngredients-USA.

Demand spikes;  supplies can’t keep up

The demand for elderberry ingredients has increased by orders of magnitude as the pandemic crisis has gripped the globe.  Consumers have rushed to buy any sort of supplements that can make an immune health support claim, and elderberry stands close to the top of that list.  Raw material supplies are close to being exhausted and reports of adulterated material entering the market are on the rise.

As with any perennial plant, bringing new fields of elderberry bushes into full production is a matter of years, not months.  Bennett said INS was working in this direction even before the pandemic crisis hit. That project is still ongoing, but in the meantime INS is relying on European black elderberry supplies from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland.

European growers have been in the game much longer, Bennett said.  Part of developing a new crop is not just putting more plants in the ground;  it involves building up the knowledge base, too.  Bennett said INS is working on both of those aspects to bring North American production of canadensis​ (which grows better here than does nigra​) closer to a competitive par with European growers, both in terms of plant quality and cost of production.

Cultivars in development 

INS is working at the moment to develop a cultivar that will be fully competitive with the European varieties in anthocyanin content.  Several that the company has developed have shown promise, and are now in the ‘proving’ stage.  This is a phase of cultivar development in which the grower tests to make sure a promising new variety will hold true in subsequent years and doesn’t revert over time to its basal characteristics or starts falling off in terms of productivity. As this is a traditional plant breeding process, not a matter of gene editing, it takes time, Bennett said.

“We have a ton of interest in people wanting to grow elderberry.  We are working with famers in Florida, Kansas and Arkansas.  When we get a plant we have enough history with to make it work, we will start wider scale production,”​ Bennett said.

“The European growers have had 50 years of history with this.  We really want to make sure that we will have a market for this product that will last, because we will spend a huge amount of money on this project,”​ he added.

“In five years, I’d like to be able to say that we’ve added a zero onto the amount of our North American acreage,”​ Bennett added.

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