PUTNEY—Gino Palmeri, a self-described “plant person” all his life, has earned a living landscaping, in outdoor education, teaching about plants — “naturalist stuff,” as he described it.
For the last 18 months, he has built Vermont Elderberry, a business growing and harvesting elderberries and turning their fruits and flowers into immunity tonics, beverages, and preserves.
The berries are grown on his land, Amandola Farm, named after “an incredible town in Italy,” said Palmeri. “My mom lived there when she was a girl — the townspeople welcomed her and her family when they were refugees from Yugoslavia.”
Palmieri officially registered the business a year and a half ago, but he has grown elderberries and made remedies from the fruit for almost 20 years.
“When my kids were young, I made immune boosters, because that’s what you do with elderberries and other useful native plants. As a Vermonter, I was determined to do that,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, “Elderberry flowers contain flavonoids and rutin, which are known to improve immune function, particularly in combination with vitamin C. The flowers also contain tannins, which account for its traditional use to reduce bleeding, diarrhea, and congestion.”
“The flowers are the mildest part of the plant and prepared as a tea, are used to break dry fevers and stimulate perspiration, aid headache, indigestion, twitching eyes, dropsy, rheumatism, appendix inflammation, bladder or kidney infections, colds, influenza, consumption (bleeding in lungs), and is helpful to newborn babies.
“Used as a wash, the flowers or leaves are good for wounds, sprains, and bruises, as well as for sores on domestic animals. The leaves, which are stronger, have a slightly laxative property.
“Applied externally, leaves, flowers, bark and twigs are excellent as a poultice, mixed equally with chamomile, for soreness, inflammations, joint stiffness, and to reduce the swelling of bee stings.
“The flowers and berries, employed as a diuretic, can aid arthritis and rheumatism. Steeped in water, the flowers are used externally to aid in complexion beauty, tone and soften the skin, and lighten freckles or spots. The berry juice made into salve aids burns and scalds. The juice taken internally will act as a purgative.”
The ripe berries can be made into elderberry wine, jam, syrup, and pies, the USDA notes. “The entire flower cluster can be dipped in batter and fried while petals can be eaten raw or made into a fragrant and tasty tea. The flowers add an aromatic flavor and lightness to pancakes or fritters.”
Making use of plants
The various species of the flowering sambucus plant, in the family adoxaceae, are commonly known as “elder” or “elderberry.” Palmeri noted the ripe berries have culinary and medicinal value, but the unripe berries, leaves, and bark are poisonous.
The shrubs grow wild and are cultivated in a variety of climates, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere.
Palmeri said he finds elderberry shrubs proliferating in the moist, rich soil of river valleys.
His farm is located across a road and a short jaunt through the woods to the Connecticut River, and he noted his shrubs can grow to 12 feet tall.
He started planting elderberry shrubs — about a dozen — on his farm in 2002 for personal use. About five years ago, Palmeri added 40 more shrubs “to see if I could start a little operation,” he said.
“I realized I should be nurturing and growing plants. My dream was to make something useful from them,” he said.
Elderberries were an obvious choice, said Palmeri, even among the hundreds of helpful native plants.
From berries to tonics
After taking courses in herbal medicine, Palmeri began developing and test-marketing an elderberry immunity tonic in 2015, and the following year he developed an alcohol-free formula.
Now, Vermont Elderberry produces the two versions of Winter Immunity Tonic, Elderberry-Raspberry Jam, and Elderflower Lemon Cordial, a concentrate for making “a cool iced drink with the delicate essence of elderflower,” said Palmeri. He describes the fruit as “the brave little berry,” and the phrase appears on the tonics’ and cordial’s labels.
Amandola Farm and Vermont Elderberry have two contract workers, Emma Bliss and Curtis Barletta. Palmeri’s daughter, Rosa, and his partner, Sue Warga, provide marketing, purchasing, and IT assistance. Palmeri noted Warga is also his “cell-phone finder.”
In mid-July, the farm’s elderberry bushes will be at “their peak blossoming stage,” as Palmeri wrote on Vermont Elderberry’s Facebook page last summer.
The farm workers and Palmeri harvest the berries from late August through early October. They freeze most of the harvest and produce the tonics, cordial, and jam in the winter and spring.
Palmeri has plans to expand Vermont Elderberry. The next step, he said, is to find a licensed co-packing facility to enable him to “ramp up the volume.”
He also wants to hire a consultant to help get the young company compliant with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “as an herbal supplement, or maybe we’ll sell all of our products as ‘food products.’”
He noted the difficulties in getting herbal supplements legal for interstate sales. For now, Palmeri is selling Vermont Elderberry tonics in-state only.
“I researched the regulations, and selling out-of-state would require more licenses and regulatory hurdles, like tweaking the label to please the FDA,” he said.
In 2015, Palmeri began selling Vermont Elderberry’s products at the Winter Farmers’ Market in Brattleboro and at the Greater Falls Farmers Market in Bellows Falls.
“The response was really good,” he said. “We’re regulars now” at those markets, and the business has a presence at the Putney Farmers’ Market, with occasional appearances at the Saturday Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market, said Palmieri.
Last year, Vermont Elderberry got its first commercial account at the Putney Food Co-op, Palmieri said, and plans are in the works to bring the products into four or five stores in southeastern Vermont.
In addition to the elderberry enterprise, Palmeri operates Palmeri Land Care, which specializes in “assisting the property owner or manager with the problem of overzealous vegetation,” he writes on his website.
He also still works at Landmark College, “because I have to,” he said.