Elderberries have become an extremely popular natural remedy. If you’ve ever tried to buy them to make elderberry syrup during cold and flu season, you might have discovered that they sell out quickly.
The good news is that you can easily grow elderberries in your own garden. Then, you won’t have to worry about whether they’ll be in stock or not when you go to buy them online.
Of course, you can also grow elderberry as an ornamental shrub for its delicate leaves and beautiful flowers. It makes a lovely, low maintenance garden plant that has the bonus of being edible.
Here’s more about elderberries and what you need to know about how to plant, grow, and care for an elderberry bush.
All About the Humble Elderberry
Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) is a deciduous shrub or small tree. There are different varieties that are native to both North America and Europe.
Today, elderberries are most famous for being an herbal remedy that strengthens the immune system. However, they also have lots of benefits in the garden, including attracting songbirds and pollinators and providing shelter for wildlife.
Elderberries have become an extremely popular herbal remedy. Though many recipes call for dried berries, you can easily substitute fresh ones grown on your own plants.
An elderberry bush can grow anywhere from 2-20 feet, depending on variety and growing conditions. They thrive mainly in USDA hardiness zones 4-9, although some are hardy to zone 3.
The leaves of elderberry shrubs are typically green, but some cultivars have deep purple-black foliage and others bright, yellow-green leaves. Ornamental varieties can also have deeply serrated leaves that are almost lacy in appearance.
Bushes bloom abundantly in late spring. The flowers are typically borne in large clusters and can be white, pink, or golden.
Elderberry Bushes as Edible Plants
Many gardeners choose to add an elderberry bush or two to their garden in order to cook, bake, or make herbal remedies with it.
The ripe berries are edible and can be used to make juice, syrup, jam, pie, tea, wine, and more. They strongly support your immune system and can be frozen or dried for long-term storage. You can start picking the berries in late summer, usually mid-August to mid-September.
Elderberry flowers are also edible. They can be used to make elderflower wine or cordial and to make a tea that will help to sweat out a fever.
Your elderberry bush will also produce beautiful and edible flowers that you can enjoy. Just keep in mind that if you harvest the flowers, your plants won’t produce as many berries.
Birds and other small animals also love to eat elderberries, so you may find yourself in competition when harvest time comes. You can put up netting to keep birds away, but share some berries, if you can, to provide a source of food for the wildlife in your area.
Caution: Unripe berries and the leaves, stems, and roots of the elderberry bush are toxic. Raw berries can also be toxic in large amounts. This does not mean they are poisonous. They will just cause digestive upset and vomiting. Ripe, cooked berries are perfectly safe for your digestion.
Landscape Uses for the Elderberry Bush
With all the focus on herbal remedies and edible plants, it’s easy to look past the elderberry bush as a landscape plant, but it actually makes a fantastic ornamental shrub.
Many elderberry cultivars have been developed that are more compact and showy than the straight native species. They have attractive foliage, abundant blooms, and striking berries that develop in late summer.
Consider using them in the following ways:
- An attractive flowering hedge
- Specimen plant
- As part of a wildlife or pollinator garden
- Screening plant for privacy
- At the corners of a vegetable garden to draw in pollinators
- Naturalized garden or forest area
- Erosion control plant (the roots of elderberry hold soil in place)
Elderberries are attractive landscape plants as well as being edible. The flowers, leaves, and berries all contribute to the three-season interest of these shrubs.
Elderberry Types and Cultivars
There are five main native types of elderberry bushes that each have different characteristics. Native species can be a good choice for a naturalized area or if you only want to grow elderberries for the fruit.
Here’s a look at each one:
- Common or American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)– This variety is native from parts of eastern and central Canada all the way down to the southern U.S. It grows mostly in woodland areas and reaches a height of 8-12 feet tall. Flowers are white, and berries are purple-black. Hardy in zones 3-9 and a vigorous grower.
- Black or European Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)– This is the species of elderberry most frequently grown for its berries. It can grow up to 20 feet tall and has many cultivars that are more compact and ornamental in appearance. Hardy in zones 4-8.
- Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea)– This species is native to the western side of North America. It’s usually considered a small tree, since it can grow up to 30 feet tall. Flowers are a creamy yellow, and berries are a deep blue-purple. Hardy in zones 4-9.
- Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)– This variety is more cold hardy than the others and is most often used ornamentally. The berries are a vibrant red color and usually cause digestive upset in humans (though birds love them). Shrubs grow 8-12 feet tall and are hardy in zones 3-7.
- Dwarf Elderberry (Sambucus ebulus)– As the name suggests, this type is much shorter than the others, growing an average of 2 feet tall. It spreads by underground rhizomes and can be quite aggressive if not kept in check. You can grow it in containers to keep it from invading your garden, but keep in mind that the berries of this species often cause an upset stomach. Hardy in zones 4-8.
Some cultivars have dark purple leaves that are deeply serrated. These varieties are favored for their ornamental appearance and several still produce edible berries.
If you want an elderberry bush with a more ornamental appearance, it’s best to go with a cultivar that has been developed specifically for landscape use. There are also cultivars bred specifically for berry production.
Here are a few of the top choices:
- ‘York’– If you want an elderberry bush for the fruit, this cultivar is a great choice. ‘York’ blooms with large clusters of white flowers that turn into large, dark purple berries. It’s one of the most productive cultivars and makes delicious pies, jellies, wine, syrup, etc.
- ‘Aurea’– This cultivar has lovely golden leaves rather than the normal green. Berries are a deep wine red color and have good flavor. Best grown in partial shade.
- ‘Laciniata’– The leaves of this cultivar are deeply cut with a lacy appearance. Flowers bloom white, and the berries are black-purple.
- ‘Black Lace’– A highly ornamental cultivar, ‘Black Lace’ has finely cut leaves that are a striking black-purple color. It almost looks like a Japanese maple tree but blooms with masses of pink flowers in the spring. Plant in full sun for best leaf color.
- ‘Black Beauty’– Another cultivar with black-purple foliage and pink flowers, ‘Black Beauty’ blooms have a unique and sweet anise fragrance when they open.
- ‘Lemony Lace’– This cultivar has lacy leaves that are a vibrant yellow-green. Dark red berries appear in the fall. Looks great next to any of the purple-leaved cultivars.
- ‘Instant Karma’– This is a unique cultivar with variegated leaves. The foliage is blue-green with white edges. Flowers are white and berries purple-black.
For an abundant harvest, choose a variety like ‘York’ to get a high yield of berries. If you’d rather grow elderberry as an ornamental, choose a cultivar with unique leaf color or texture.
How to Plant and Grow an Elderberry Bush
It might be difficult to find an elderberry bush for sale at your local nursery or garden center, although the ornamental varieties are becoming more popular.
If you can’t find any plants locally, several online nurseries sell elderberry bushes that will be shipped to you either as a potted plant or a bare root plant. Both can be planted using the same method, just make sure you follow any instructions for storing your plant until it can go in your garden.
Where to Plant Elderberry
Light– Most elderberries will do best if planted in full sun, although some of the golden or variegated cultivars may need partial shade to keep their leaf color at its best. Check the light requirements of your specific cultivar before planting.
Soil– Elderberries prefer moist soil over dry, although they won’t do well in consistently soggy soil. Add compost before planting to improve the soil texture and fertility. You can also add well-rotted manure for extra fertilizer.
Your elderberry bush will prefer an acidic soil (pH 5.5-6.5). It’s a good idea to test your soil’s pH before planting and amend if necessary. There are several easy ways to make your soil more acidic if needed.
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Spacing– Spacing will depend on the mature size of the variety of elderberry you’re growing, but plants need to be at least 6-10 feet apart. This will allow for good airflow that is essential for preventing fungal diseases.
Pollination– Certain fruit trees and bushes need to be planted in pairs and have more than one cultivar in order for pollination to occur (without pollination, there’s no fruit). Elderberries are self-pollinating, but you can increase your yield of berries by planting more than one bush and more than one cultivar.
When to Plant
You can plant an elderberry bush either in fall or early spring. Spring is the most typical time of year for planting shrubs. If you ordered your plants online, most nurseries will ship at the time of year you should plant, which is usually springtime.
If you get your plants in the spring, plant them after the danger of frost has passed but when temperatures are still cool.
If you’d rather plant in the fall, put your bushes in when the weather turns cool but early enough that they have time to get rooted before harsh weather comes.
Tips for Planting Your Elderberry Bush
After you’ve weeded and amended your soil, it’s time to plant your bush or bushes!
Start by digging a hole that is twice as wide and a few inches deeper than the container your plant is in (or root system if it’s bare root). Use a sharp garden shovel to make the job easier on yourself.
Planting fruiting bushes requires some patience, since many of them won’t bear fruit the same year you plant them. However, your hard work will all pay off next season!
Once your hole is dug, slide your elderberry bush gently out of its container. If it seems to be stuck, knock on the sides and bottom to loosen the roots. You can also cut the container off with hand pruners.
Lift the plant into the hole and check to make sure that the top of the root system is even with the soil. If it’s not, take the plant out, add some soil to the bottom of the hole, and try again.
Once you get your bush at the right height, loosen the root ball on the sides and bottom so that the roots are pointing different directions instead of wrapping around themselves in the shape of the container. (You may not need to do this for a bare root plant.)
Fill in around your plant with soil from the hole you dug until you’ve completely filled it back up. Firm the top of the soil with your hands, and make sure no roots are open to the air.
After you’re done planting all your bushes, water them deeply. If the soil washes away or you notice any air pockets, add more soil so that all the roots are covered again.
Elderberry Bush Care and Pruning
One of the best parts about growing an elderberry bush is how low maintenance it is. You won’t need to do much, but there are a few important tasks that will really make a difference.
It’s important to water your elderberry bushes regularly during the first growing season. Make sure you water deeply so that the water will reach all the way down to the deepest roots on your plants.
Watering– Elderberries have shallow root systems and will need supplemental watering during dry periods as they get established. It’s a good idea to water your bushes regularly for the first growing season and during drought periods after that.
Weeding– Because of their shallow roots, weeds can steal nutrients away from your plants, especially while they are just getting started. Keep your bushes weed-free to keep them healthy and growing.
Mulch– Mulch is optional, but it can help to keep moisture in the soil if you find it’s drying out too quickly. If you do decide to mulch, keep it a few inches away from the trunk of your shrub, or it may cause the wood to rot.
Fertilizer– Don’t fertilize your elderberry bushes at all during their first season of growth. After that, you can fertilize every year in early spring by applying a granular fertilizer or by applying a dressing of compost around your plants.
Pruning your elderberry bushes is unnecessary during their first two years of growth. After that, you should do it regularly to keep them healthy and producing lots of berries.
Pruning is an important part of keeping your elderberries healthy and productive. They will survive if you don’t prune them but may become less vigorous and yield fewer berries.
If you do nothing else, make sure to at least remove any dead, weak, diseased, or crossing branches. You can also remove canes (branches) that are older than three years because they will be less productive than newer branches.
If you want to shape your plants, make clean cuts right above a bud. To keep spreading varieties under control, cut suckers off at the base.
Pruning can seem daunting if you’ve never done it before, but elderberry is a very resilient plant. Pruning encourages new, healthy growth, so don’t be afraid to do it!
Pests and Problems
Elderberry bushes rarely suffer from pest or disease problems. The most likely problems to occur are a fungal disease on the leaves or root rot if conditions are constantly damp and plants aren’t spaced properly.
To avoid most pest and disease issues, space plants far enough apart for good airflow, prune dead wood off each year, and clean up leaves and debris under your plants each fall.
Deer and rabbits usually aren’t interested in elderberry, which is a plus!
Harvesting from Your Elderberry Bush
There are two parts of your elderberry shrubs that can be harvested: the flowers and the ripe berries.
Harvesting is the rewarding part of planting and growing your elderberry shrubs. Both the flowers and berries can be harvested to make delicious recipes.
How to Harvest Elderflower
Elder flowers are edible and are often used to make a tea, cordial, or wine. They typically appear in May or June and can be harvested as they bloom. Make sure you only harvest from shrubs that haven’t been sprayed with any kind of pesticide.
Choose a dry morning to harvest, if possible. Look for flowers that have just bloomed but are fully open. Clip them off with as short a stem as possible using sharp garden clippers.
Bring the flowers inside and inspect them for bugs, but don’t wash them unless absolutely necessary. Use them to make a delicious drink or try frying them in a light batter to make fritters!
Note: Keep in mind that the flowers will later turn into berries. If you want to harvest a large amount of berries later on, only harvest a few flower clusters and let the rest continue to grow.
How to Harvest Elderberries
Your new plants may not produce berries until their second season, but you might get some the first year if you’re lucky.
Elderberries typically ripen in late summer, between mid-August and mid-September. Most varieties will be a deep purple-black when ripe, but some will be red. Make sure they are fully ripe before you harvest.
The best way to harvest is to use garden clippers or sharp scissors to snip whole clusters off. You may find that some berries on a cluster are under ripe, while others are ready to be picked. Select clusters that have a majority of ripe berries and discard the unripe ones.
Make sure the berries are completely ripe before you harvest them so they don’t cause any upset stomachs later. Ripe elderberries are a deep purple-black color and will be plump and juicy.
Collect the clusters in a basket or bucket and bring them inside to de-stem them.
Processing and Storing Elderberries
Processing your harvest can be a bit of a chore, but if you get a good method down, it will go quickly.
Your main task is to separate the berries from the cluster without the little stems sticking to them. First, however, you’ll want to rinse or soak your berries in water to get rid of dirt and insects.
After they are clean, use your fingers or a fork to gently pull the berries off their stems. You may want to rinse them again afterwards to get rid of any stem material.
You can now use them fresh or freeze them for later!
How to Freeze Elderberries
Even though dried elderberries are sold at most herb stores, freezing is an easier method for preserving your homegrown produce.
To freeze the berries, first rinse and dry them. Then, space whole clusters out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and put it in your freezer overnight or until the berries are frozen solid.
Put the frozen clusters in a plastic bag and gently shake or bang the bag against a counter to loosen the stems. Take the fruit back out and pull off the stems, which should mostly come off in one piece.
Place the de-stemmed berries in freezer-safe bags or containers and store in your freezer. You can also process the berries and remove the stems before freezing if you find that easier.
Enjoying Your Own Elderberries
With just a little bit of care, your elderberry bush will last for 25 or more years, and you’ll be able to harvest berries for years to come! Use them in a traditional remedy like elderberry syrup, or try your hand at making jam, pie, or wine.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.