Elderberries have a long history of uses as both medicine and food. For centuries they were used in folk medicine for a variety of illnesses and ailments, but they have only recently gained popularity in the United States. Elderberry fruit is known to be high in vitamins A and C, phosphorus, potassium and iron. It is also rich in antioxidants and has immune supporting properties. There is growing interest in planting elderberry in order to harvest the edible fruit and flowers, though it should be noted that most parts of the plant are poisonous and berries must be cooked to be safe to eat Elderberry shrubs are also beautiful landscape plants that make excellent additions to rain gardens and shrub borders. Bees and butterflies flock to the flowers, and the fruit is highly attractive to many birds and other wildlife.
Two species of elderberry are commonly grown in gardens and landscapes: American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and European elderberry (Sambucus nigra). American elderberry is native to New Hampshire and can be found growing in moist soils at forest or wetland edges. It can grow five to ten feet tall and wide and has gray barked stems with white pithy centers. Groups of stems emerge from the roots and develop an arching and spreading habit. The opposite leaves are compound with five to 11 leaflets that have serrated edges. Large, flat-topped, white flowers are borne between mid-June and mid-July. These give way to purple-black, berry-like fruits in August through September.
European elderberry is very closely related to American elderberry and is quite similar in appearance. The main differences are that European elderberry is a little more tree-like and slightly less cold hardy. Most cultivated varieties of elderberry that can be purchased at garden centers and nurseries are the European species. These showy forms often have yellow, purple or lacy looking leaves, and they are grown for ornamental purposes rather than culinary. American elderberry is also readily available for purchase, both as bareroot and potted plants.
Elderberries are very easy to grow as long as they are planted in the right situation. They grow very well in consistently moist, fertile soils. They can tolerate occasional drought and temporarily wet soils but aren’t a good choice for sandy or marshy spots. As for pH, the soil can be either acidic or alkaline, though slightly acidic (5.5 to 6.5) is ideal. To get the most flowers and berries, plant elderberries in full sun. Partial shade can be tolerated if you are growing the plant for its decorative foliage.
Plant elderberries in the ground at the same depth as their roots. Elderberries are shallow-rooted, so keep them well watered through the first growing season. Aim to keep the soil consistently moist but not soggy, applying irrigation whenever there is less than an inch of rain in a week. Applying a two to three inch layer of compost or woodchips over the root zones of plants will help conserve soil moisture and build the organic matter in the soil. It is not necessary to apply fertilizer in the first year after planting. In fact, elderberries typically do not require very much fertilizer and can get all the nutrients they need from decomposed organic matter in the soil.
Some thought should also go into where elderberry is planted from a design and maintenance perspective. It is a very fast-growing shrub with a suckering habit that can make it look unruly and out of place in certain settings. While it will look right at home at the edge of a pond, drainage swale, rain garden or natural buffer area, it’s not a great choice as a foundation plant or backdrop to a formal garden. Make sure it is planted in an area where it will be easy enough to access for maintenance purposes.
Elderberry does require considerable pruning to keep it both attractive and productive. Pruning can be tackled in three different ways: 1) annually removing dead or weak stems; 2) shorten stems by about 1/3; or 3) cut all stems to the ground to entirely rejuvenate. Elderberry blooms on new growth of the current season, so pruning should be completed in late winter or early spring.
Fertilization usually isn’t required to keep elderberries lush and healthy, and you should be able to tell if added nutrients are necessary by looking at the shrub. If the plant is very vigorous and produces lots of new growth each year, no fertilizer is needed. However, if few new canes are produced and growth is poor, then you might consider fertilizing with a slow-release organic fertilizer. Better yet, have your soil tested to identify if the pH and available nutrients are adequate.
During periods of especially dry weather, elderberry will benefit from supplemental irrigation if it is planted in drier soil. Watering is most critical in the first season or two after planting.
Elderberry as Food
It is very important to note that elderberry is poisonous. Leaves, stems, roots and unripe berries contain cyanic glucosides, which can make people and livestock very sick if consumed. Even ripe fruit is mildly toxic and can cause illness if eaten raw in large quantities. However, the fruit can be rendered edible by cooking or drying, which, coincidentally, also improves its flavor. Elderberry fruits can be turned into a variety of delicacies, including but not limited to: jellies, pie filling, juice, wine, cordials, tinctures and syrups.
You can expect to harvest elderberry fruits in the second or third season of growth. Wait to pick them until they are dark purple, nearly black, in mid-August to September. The easiest way to harvest the fruit is to clip the entire berry cluster from the shrub, and then gently remove the berries from the cluster. The berries spoil quickly, so they should be immediately refrigerated, frozen or dried.
Elderberry flowers are actually edible too. They are frequently included in tinctures and syrups and can be dipped in batter and fried into fritters. Flowers should be harvested just before they reach peak bloom for best quality.
Whether you’re interested in growing elderberry for ornamental interest, to attract wildlife or to harvest a crop, it can make a great addition to many landscapes and gardens.
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