Edible Elderberries: How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Sambucus Canadensis and Sambucus Nigra
Are you thinking of adding some elderberries to your home or garden space? There are actually two different types of edible elderberries, Sambucus Canadensis and Sambucus Nigra. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton explains how to plant, grow, and care for elderberries.
Elderberries are a popular fruit among foragers, often found growing in the wild across the United States and Europe. These berries are one of the easiest bushes to grow at home, evidenced by their prolific growth in the wild. They also produce mountains of dark berries year after year, a great edible option for gardening beginners.
Those looking to grow elderberries in their own gardens have a choice between various species, the most popular of which are canadensis and nigra. Sambucus canadensis, also known as the American elderberry, forms a thick shrub. Sambucus nigra (the European or black elder) grows in fewer regions but is favored for its height and intense black fruits. Both plant types are frequently used as edible hedge plants.
Both species have a deep history with a long list of medicinal benefits. Beyond that, they’re great kitchen additions, especially when used in preserves or deserts. Combined with their carefree growing nature, these plants are essentials in any home garden.
- 1 Elderberry Plant Overview
- 2 Plant History
- 3 Propagation
- 4 Growing and Caring For Elderberry
- 5 Pests and Diseases
- 6 Harvesting
- 7 Preservation
- 8 Plant Uses
- 9 Frequently Asked Questions
- 10 Final Thoughts
Elderberry Plant Overview
North America and Europe
USDA 3-9 and 4-7
Full Sun to Partial Shade
5-12 feet and 8-20 feet
Aphids, Scale, Borer
Canker, Leaf Spot, Powdery Mildew
Bees, Butterflies, Birds
Other Berry Shrubs
Don’t Plant With
Cultivated for thousands of years, elderberries have been integral plants throughout history. According to historical evidence, these delicious berries were farmed in Switzerland over 4 000 years ago. But historians believe their use as a medicinal plant goes back much further, present in ancient myth and folklore stories.
Hippocrates, the Greek physician and a hero in the history of medicine, wrote about the fruit’s medicinal properties around 400 BCE. Roman author Pliny the Elder joined in on the praise years later, indicating the elderberry was important to Greek and Roman medicine around the turn of the first millennium.
Elderberries are also common in Native American history. Knowledge of the many uses of the fruit was passed down for generations – a valuable medicinal resource.
Beyond their medicinal uses, various cultures used elderberries to make instruments or adorn graves. Sprigs of the tree were hung up above home entrances to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits.
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that sickness could be transferred to the tree by covering it with the ill person’s bathwater. Superstitious individuals warned against burning any part of the tree or causing it harm for fear of bad luck or illness.
These are just some of the many stories of the elderberry in history, indicating its impressive historical significance. Their appreciation is resurging once again, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Elderberries are some of the easiest plants to propagate. Due to their vigorous growth in a range of conditions, if you stick almost any part of the plant in the ground, it will grow rapidly. They will also propagate themselves if left alone, spreading several feet wide. However, if you’re looking to grow an elderberry plant in another part of your garden, or want to replicate one you found in the wild, growing from cuttings is your best bet.
Propagating From Cuttings
Elderberries can be grown from hardwood or softwood cuttings. Hardwood cuttings are best snipped when the plant is dormant in winter. Remove a disease-free branch around 6 inches long with plenty of nodes.
Softwood cuttings, the new branch growth that is green or light brown in color, should be removed in spring or summer at the peak of the growing season, depending on your region.
When removing the cuttings from the tree, always mark which side the bottom of the cutting is. This prevents you from accidentally planting the cutting upside down, in which case it will not develop roots. Cut the bottom of the branch at a 45⁰ angle to maximize surface area.
To root the cuttings, make a soilless medium by mixing coco peat and perlite. Fill a pot with the mixture and place the bottom third of the cutting in the medium. To encourage quicker and more reliable rooting, dip the end of the cutting in rooting hormone first.
Water thoroughly and cover the pot with a plastic bag, using sticks to hold up the bag and ensure it does not touch the branch. Place the pot in a spot with bright indirect sunlight and gently mist the cuttings and soil every couple of days.
After two months, check the progress of your cuttings. If they have begun to develop leaves, they should be ready to transplant. If not, gently pull on the cutting. Any resistance to being moved indicates the cutting has developed roots and is ready to be planted in the garden.
Alternatively, you can root the cuttings in water. Submerge about half of the branch in a glass of water. Change the water every few days to ensure it stays fresh and mist with a spray bottle to maintain moisture. Once the roots have formed, they can be moved into soil, either into a pot or out in the garden.
Elderberries grow best when planted in spring after any signs of frost have passed. Plant more than one cultivar to allow for cross-pollination and improve yield. Place each plant around 3 feet apart at minimum. These rapid growers will fill out the extra space in no time. To ensure successful cross-pollination, don’t place each plant more than 50 feet apart.
As they have shallow roots, a deep planting hole is not a necessity. Dig a hole slightly deeper than the depth of the roots and mix in some compost to give your plants the best start. Loamy soil is best, but elderberries are quite tolerant of poor-quality soils.
Once planted, water thoroughly and continue to keep the soil moist as the plant establishes roots. Applying a thick layer of mulch a few weeks after planting will help retain moisture, providing the elderberries with an environment they love. Compost is an ideal mulch as it will break down into the soil over time, improving structure and nutrition.
Growing and Caring For Elderberry
Both Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra are incredibly easy plants to grow and maintain. They have some specific requirements, but are mostly carefree and will require little attention from you throughout the season.
The elderberry is tolerant of a range of lighting conditions but prefers a full sun spot to produce the most fruits. American elderberries fare far better in a wider range of lighting conditions than the European elder. In colder regions, the European elder will need more sun than its American counterpart but will appreciate some afternoon shade in hot climates.
If you are growing this plant for its ornamental value (especially the nigra variety), shade is not a problem. They may not produce many fruits, or any at all depending on the depth of the shade, but make wonderful ornamental shrubs for shady parts of the garden where other plants refuse to grow. Given some partial sun, the American elderberry will still produce fruits, albeit fewer than those in full sun.
The one thing elderberries are picky about is water. The juicy berries aren’t juicy on their own – they require plenty of moisture, especially in the first year of growth. Drought will quickly signal the demise of this plant, so it is important to keep it well-watered throughout the year.
As elderberry plants have shallow root systems, they cannot draw up water from the lower parts of the soil that retain water far longer. As the top layer of soil dries out the quickest – more so in hot and sunny weather – the roots have no access to water, causing the plant to wilt.
This is even more important for the European elderberry. This variety is often found near wetlands in its natural habitat, soaking up all the moisture it can find. Unlike many other garden plants, they tend to prefer wet soil, rather than being damaged by it.
If you are a gardener prone to overwatering, elderberries are the ideal plant for you. Both varieties prefer overwatering to underwatering, as long as the soil is well-draining.
Water frequently during the week, increasing the amounts of watering in warm weather. The top layer of soil is a good indicator – if it is dry, the roots are dry too and need a drink. The layer of mulch applied soon after planting will lessen the amount you need to water while improving soil quality.
American elderberries can grow in just about any soil type, including sandy soil. European elders may grow well in clay soil, as long as it drains relatively well. However, while they can grow in any soil type, good quality soil is always best for fruit-producing plants. Nutrient-rich loamy soil is ideal, but not a necessity.
One quality the soil should always have is good drainage. Due to their shallow roots, any soil that holds too much water and does not drain away will quickly rot the roots. European elderberries are more tolerant of this than American ones, but it’s best to be on the safe side and ensure good drainage for long-term success.
Climate and Temperature
American elderberries are the most tolerant of a range of conditions, growing well in USDA Zones 3-9. Sambucus nigra is more limited, restricted to Zones 5-7 – possibly 4 given the right conditions. Given their native habitats, these ranges are not a surprise but are something to consider when choosing which species to grow.
When it comes to the weather, these plants follow the pattern of other berry shrubs. Elderberries prefer cooler, temperate weather to hot and dry climates. They thrive in areas with cool rainy weather, enjoying the moisture most. They don’t mind dry weather, not fussing about humidity, but struggle when dry air is combined with high temperatures.
Elderberries do not require regular fertilizing, adding to their carefree nature. In the first year of planting, it is actually best not to fertilize at all while the plant establishes itself.
From the second year onwards, you may choose to apply fertilizer once per year to improve fruit production. But, just like they are in the wild, these plants will be fine without it. If planted in good soil, and mulched regularly with a healthy layer of compost, even a fertilizer once a year is not necessary.
If your elderberry is not producing many berries, apply a balanced fertilizer (equal NPK values) once in early spring. Wait until all frost has passed to give the plant a boost right as it begins its growing season.
Elderberries benefit from regular pruning. This increases production and keeps the plant tidy (they tend to get out of hand if left alone). In late winter or early spring, remove all dead or weak branches and cut back the plant by one-third to encourage new growth.
Both species produce suckers that allow the plant to spread. This makes them the perfect choice for an edible hedge. However, if you want to keep it contained, you will need to prune these suckers as you see them.
When pruned often, your elderberry should grow into a dense shrub. In this form, they will respond well to shaping, forming a hedge. Alternatively, prune the bottom branches for a more tree-like appearance.
The other essential maintenance task is weeding. Before planting, the area should be completely weed-free. However, if they manage to creep in, remove them immediately. The shallow roots of the elderberry make them more susceptible to crowding from excessive weed growth. Keep an eye on the area often, even when the plant fills out, as they may not be easy to spot under the bushy growth.
Pests and Diseases
Both Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra are susceptible to similar pests and diseases. While they are important to watch out for, elderberry plants are not massively prone to either problem and typically remain pest or disease-free with the right care.
Look out for aphids, mealybug, and scale – common pests in many home gardens. These bugs prey on the tissues of the elderberry, causing the leaves and branches to slowly die off. Elder shoot borer is also a potential risk, tunneling into the transport systems of the plant.
These pests prefer snacking on the tender new growth that emerges in spring. Once you spot one of them, ensure you remove them with horticultural oil or a homemade natural pesticide immediately to prevent further infestation. Control is also vital in preventing the spread of these bugs to other vulnerable plants in your garden.
When it comes to diseases, canker and powdery mildew are common, as well as leaf spot. These problems can be exacerbated by the moist environments that elderberries enjoy. Once a disease has rooted itself, it will be incredibly difficult (if not impossible, depending on the disease and extent of the problem) to get rid of.
Prevention is usually the first and only line of defense. Ensure there is plenty of airflow between the plants by spacing correctly and pruning often. In shaded areas where water does not evaporate off the leaves, irrigation is best to prevent water from sitting on the leaves and attracting disease. Always clean your garden tools after contact with any diseases and ensure your layer of mulch does not touch the stem of the plant to prevent rotting.
You should start to see flowers forming on your elderberry in early or late summer of the first year of planting, depending on the climate. These flowers will eventually make way for berries that ripen in a week or two. You’ll know they are ready to be picked when the berries turn a dark purple or black color.
Cut a whole cluster of berries off at the base. It’s best to do this as soon as you see all the berries on one cluster ripen. These fruits are beloved by birds, and leaving them too long may lead to very little harvest, if any at all.
Once harvested, you will need to prepare the berries for use. The branches and stems of the elderberry are toxic and need to be completely removed from the berries before cooking. But don’t spend hours removing each tiny berry from the stems individually – simply place them in a bag in the freezer for a few hours. Once frozen, shake the bag to release the berries from the stems and separate.
Elderberries need to be used immediately after harvesting as they begin to go bad incredibly quickly. To keep your harvest longer than a day or two, use one of the many preservation methods available.
The first and most common method is freezing. While they can be frozen on the stems as seen before, it is best to remove them and place in a freezer-safe container for easy use when they are next needed. They also respond well to drying, either in the sun for a few weeks (away from the birds, of course), in the oven, or in a dehydrator.
Used fresh, there are a number of elderberry preservation methods that ensure your harvest will last several months. The berries are commonly used to make jams or jellies, using sugar to preserve the fruits. In liquid form, they are transformed into elderberry juices, syrups, or tinctures.
No matter which method you choose, it’s important to cook the berries before eating. Raw elderberries contain glucosides that cause a build-up of cyanide in the body. Cooking the berries releases these compounds, making them safe to eat. Cooking or drying also improves the flavor, removing some of the bitterness.
If history is anything to go by, the uses of the elderberry plant are almost endless. From your medicine cabinet to your kitchen cupboard, you’ll never run out of things to do with elderberries.
Elderberry is favored first for its medicinal properties. It is a common ingredient in cold and flu medications, with research showing it has a positive effect on the immune system. It is also used to lessen chronic pain of the muscles or nerves. Some parts of the plant are used to treat skin conditions like eczema.
While further research is needed to prove these hypotheses, the berries do provide many health benefits. They are high in vitamin C and fiber, as well as anthocyanins that give the fruit its anti-inflammatory properties. It may not be proven to cure your ailments, but it can certainly form part of a healthy diet.
Elderberries feature in many recipes, either as the ‘cherry’ on top or the star of the show. Jams, jellies, and syrups are often used to flavor desserts, while the cooked berries make an excellent pie filling. They are also used to make health-conscious wines when fermented for around 6 months. The flavors are prominent in cocktails or spirits too, such as gin.
Beyond their edible properties, elderberry plants are easy to grow and make great features in any garden. They are an ideal shrub for foodscaping and grow tall enough to make an adequate privacy hedge. They produce clusters of stunning flowers, similar to viburnums, that complement any summer garden.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which elderberries are poisonous?
Technically, all elderberries are poisonous to humans. The stems, leaves, roots, and even ripe berries contain cyanide-inducing glycoside. This compound causes a build-up of cyanide in the body, ultimately making you ill. However, this does not mean you can’t enjoy the ‘fruits’ of your labor. It just means they need to be enjoyed carefully. Always pick the elderberries only when you are sure they are ripe and cook before eating.
Are elderberries toxic to pets?
Like humans, the plant is also toxic to pets. Ingestion of the raw plant may result in cyanide poisoning, which can have damaging effects on cats and dogs. The toxic dosage will depend on the size of the animal, but it is far safer to keep them away from the plant altogether.
When do elderberries bloom?
Elderberries bloom from early to late summer, depending on your region.
Will elderberries ripen off the vine?
The ripening of fruits is affected by a chemical called ethylene. Some fruits are more reactive to this compound, or produce more of it, allowing them to ripen further when picked early. All berries, including elderberries, are not very reactive to ethylene and will not ripen off the vine. Considering the toxicity of the unripe berries, always pick them only when they are completely ripe.
Elderberries are a great choice for any home garden, no matter the size. Producing fruit in the first year of growth, and increasing that productivity in the second year, they are ideal for impatient gardeners who don’t want to wait years for a good harvest.
They are also carefree plants (especially the American elderberry), making them perfect for beginners. Whether you turn your berries into a tincture or a tea, you will find hundreds of uses for this historically important plant – even if only grown for its ornamental value.