How to Cultivate Elderberry: A Complete Guide

Sambucus, also called elderberry, or simply elder, is a genus of flowering shrub that is both wild and cultivated in much of the world. It is in the Honeysuckle Family, Caprifoliaceae. There are up to 30 different species of Sambucus, according to who you ask; there is some argument over the classification of species of Sambucus. Elderberry grows widely in North America, Europe, and Asia. There are also species of Sambucus in South America and Australia. For the purposes of this post I will be referring to Sambucus nigra, referred to commonly as the black elderberry, and its subspecies Sambucus canadensis. Both of which grow throughout the United States and much of Canada. There are other species, both wild and cultivated, in North America, but they are all fairly similar and much of what applies to Sambucus nigra also applies to other species.

New spring buds opening. 

Other Names
Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis is also called:
  • American elderberry
  • Sweet Elder
  • Common Elder
  • European elderberry
  • Black Elderberry
  • Wild Elder
  • Tree of Music
  • Danewort
  • Walewort
  • Velvetleaf Elder
  • Hairy Blue Elderberry
  • Dwarf Elder
  • New Mexican Elderberry
Plant Characteristics
Elderberry are generally shrubby, 4-12 ft tall, and grow in thickets. While they remain as shrubs the large majority of the time, they can grow as small trees, taller than 12 ft. Their branchlets are gray to grayish-brown and pithy in the center. Elderberry have compound leaves growing in opposite pairs. The leaves are bright green and finely toothed at the edges, about 6” long and 2 ½” wide. Leaves come to an abrupt point at the top are often rounded and asymmetrical at the base. Sambucus have ½” buds that are green and purple and are often one of the first buds to begin opening in the spring (Early April in Vermont). ¼” white flowers grow in umbel shaped clusters 4-10” across in mid-late summer. They are arranged in branched clusters of 5. Drooping clusters of  ¼” berries appear in July-September. Berries are bluish to dark purplish-black, round, and slightly bitter. Some species of Sambucus have red berries, these are not edible. Each berry contains 3-5 small seeds.  Elderberries can begin to fruit and flower in their 2nd or 3rd year of growth and can reach their mature size by 3-4 years.

Site Requirements
Hardy in zones 3-10, elderberry grows best in full sunlight, but is tolerant of some shade. Although it may not get as large, elder grows well in cold climates. It prefers moist, but well drained soil high in organic matter and does not tolerate standing water. For this reason, Sambucus grows well on streambanks or other running water. If planting in light, sandy soil, it should be amended with plenty of compost or peat moss to hold moisture (Phillips 327). Elderberry prefers slightly acidic soil from 5.5 to 6.5 pH, but can tolerate a wider range than this. Sambucus grows well in edge habitat, fields, clearings, and under dappled light in the forest. While it thrives extremely well in full sun, it can definitely grow under trees, making it an excellent choice for a midstory shrub in an agroforestry or permaculture system. Elder is also tolerant of juglones, meaning that it can be planted under or near walnut trees.

Required Attention
Sambucus requires very little to no attention whatsoever once established. In the first year of life, be sure to water your plants often if rain is scarce. Elderberry requires an inch of rain during the growing season, and 1.5” during drought or fruiting season. Weeding should be done gently by hand as not to disturb the elderberry’s delicate and shallow root system. Do not disturb soil more than 2” down. Once established, elder does fine at competing with any weeds on its own. It should not be fertilized very much in the first year of life as this can give competitors the advantage. After that, small amounts of fertilizer can be applied each year. Elderberry requires little nitrogen. Some suggest that you mulch first year plants to maintain soil moisture and suppress weeds. Minor pruning may be done after the first year for maximum productivity. Sambucus does perfectly well without any human assistance, but requires small amounts of attention for maximum production.

Planting from Seed
Elderberries grow well from seed, which can be ordered from a seed supplier or collected yourself by harvesting ripe fruit, separating, washing, and drying the seeds. Elder can be planting in the fall after the seed is harvested but stratifying over the winter and planting in the spring is preferred. To stratify, mix equal parts sand, peat moss, and vermiculite in a plastic bag, add seeds, and leave in 40 degree F refrigerator for at least 90 days. Plant seeds 2 inches apart in a tray of moist potting soil. Cover tray with a clear plastic cover and set on a heating pad in a room that is 72-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Set the heating pad to 75 degrees F. Mist soil every 3-4 days, keeping moist but not soggy. After 4-6 months they will begin to germinate. Once most of the seeds have germinated, remove plastic cover and set tray in sunlight. Transplant 3-5” seedlings into 6” pots very carefully as not to disturb their delicate roots, and keep in a 70-75 degree room in direct sunlight. After they have established stronger roots, transplant outdoors at least 4-5 ft apart. In commercial growing operations, plant 10 ft apart to allow for access by machinery. Remember that Sambucus can often be as wide as it is tall. Mulch and water well, but do not allow the soil to get soggy (Westover).

Planting from Cuttings
Elderberry grows well from cuttings, but have a higher fatality rate than those grown from seed. Cuttings are much simpler and faster to use, though, and vegetative growth after planting is much faster, giving you harvestable fruit sooner. To take cuttings from elderberry, cut 10-18” stems from last years growth with at least two clusters of buds on them. You will need to cut them while they are still dormant in late winter or early spring. Choose stems that are near the edges of the clump, not the thick, woody growth in the middle.  Take more than you need as some will not survive. Cut the stems at an angle so that they can suck up more water. Keep them upright in a glass container of water, covering them halfway. Change the water often, spritz with water occasionally (elder loves humidity), and keep in full sunlight. Using a rooting agent is optional.  After 4-6 weeks you should have nice, sturdy roots growing from your cutting. These can be planting outdoors after the risk of freezing temperatures.
Cuttings can also be planted in soil. To do this, soak in water for 12-24 hours before planting, cut side down, in potting soil. Water often and allow to grow for 6-8 weeks. Keep them in a greenhouse of cover with a plastic bag and leave in full sun. After this time, you should have leaves on your stems and some root development. Gently tug on your plants to see how sturdy the roots are. If they are too weak, wait for them to develop a stronger root system, this can take up to 12 weeks. After they have established stronger roots, transplant outdoors at least 4-5 ft apart. In commercial growing operations, plant 10 ft apart to allow for access by machinery. Remember that Sambucus can often be as wide as it is tall.
Using this method, you should have elderflowers the first season, and fruit by the second.

Encouraging Elderberry Growth in Woodlots
Elderberries like full or close to full sunlight and often grow with brambles in areas of early succession. To encourage their growth in the forest, patch cuts, clearcuts, or seed tree cuttings are very beneficial. Stack limbs and tops in short piles (less than 3 ft) that are not super dense so that elder can grow up with some protection from deer browsing. Elderberries are a favorite of many birds, which spread their small seeds all over. If there are elderberries growing nearby, create habitat favorable for songbirds, which hopefully will spread many, many Sambucus seeds around your patch cut (clear cut, etc). Disturb soil somewhat to encourage seed germination. It may take several years for germination to occur as seeds must go through a scarification process.

Elderberry does just fine pollinating itself, but yields increase significantly if allowed to cross-pollinate with another variety. For best results plant two or more cultivars of the same species within 60’ of each other. Pollination occurs mostly through wind with insects also playing a role (Phillips 328).

As I said earlier, it is not necessary to prune your elderberries, especially if they are growing wild out in a woodlot. They will still produce plenty of flowers and fruit, plus they will spread more readily. If you are growing berries for your own use, a little pruning only takes a minute or two per bush and will increase your harvests significantly. Always prune in late winter.  Cut off the new shoots about a foot each year to encourage outward branching and a fuller shrub. You can root these cuttings and plant them again as well. Prune wood that is three years or older as well, these are often the large, woody, and often dead, stems in the center of the plant. Finally, if you do not want your elder bush to spread too much, trim any new shoots spreading too far away from the plant (Logsdon 124). Again, you would not want to do that in a woodlot if you want the elder to spread rapidly, but may want to if planted in a garden or hedge. Pruning will reduce winter-kill and help control elder borers as well (NRCS).

Sambucus can be coppiced to encourage growth or create hedgerows. Coppicing should be done in late winter to early spring just before the plant begins to actively grow again. To do so, simply cut all stems back to 2”-2 ½” from the ground during this time of the year (RHS). 

Insect Pests
Sambucus has very few insect pests, and even fewer that do any considerable damage. Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard, suggests using a holistic spray made from pure neem oil to keep any elderberry pests in check. He also discusses a few common pests to follow. The first is the elder shoot borer, a species of moth whose caterpillars bore into the stems and shoots. Eggs hatch in the early spring and the larvae feed on the young leaves before boring into the lateral shoots and eventually migrating to the ground shoots, feeding upwards. In early summer, they go to the dead wood to pupate, leaving sawdust (frass) on the ground at the base of dead canes. To control, prune away infested shoots and dead canes every year to prevent pupation (Phillips 330).
Another pest, the blue and yellow beetle known as the elderberry borer lives in central North America down to parts of the Appalachians. Shoots with droopy tips can alert you to their presence in your elder plants. Snap these off and you should find the grub within a foot or so. Get rid of it (Phillips 331).
One of the only pests that can do significant damage to Sambucus foliage is the larvae of the cecropia moth, one of the largest and showiest moths in North America. Most abundant near woodlands, the best way to control these large larvae is simply to remove them by hand and rehome them on a lilac or maple. You may find their cocoons, which are sometimes more than 3” long and made of tough silk. These can also be removed by hand (Phillips 331).
In the Central Valley of California are the valley elderberry longhorn beetle. These beetles and their larvae feed on the shoots and foliage of their host, Sambucus. These beetles should not be removed or disturbed in any ways as they are a federally threatened species.

Elder flowers will later become the delicious elderberries, although delicious and useful in their own right.  

Bacterial leaf spot is one disease that affects Sambucus. Infected plants will have red angular spots on the foliage that are uniform in size. If these spots are numerous enough, the leaves will yellow and wilt. The unknown bacteria that causes this disease likely overwinters in the soil, as well as in twig cankers, and bark (Phillips 332).
There are four species of powdery mildew that can affect elderberry. It can be identified by the powdery, white substance coating the leaves. This is only a problem when conditions favor the fungi so much that it affects the fruit (Phillips 332).
There are several different fungi that can cause cankers on elderberry, girdling the shoot and causing the tissue above it to die. Winter injury, drought, or flooding can stress the elder, leaving it susceptible to these infections. Remove affected shoots and dispose of properly to prevent more infection (Phillips 332).

The average annual yield per plant is 12-15 lbs of fruit, although this may vary greatly depending on the age of the plant, site conditions, competition, available sunlight, etc. (Jacke).

The best way to harvest elderberries is by hand. Once the berries have reached a deep purplish-black  in the late summer to early autumn, they are ready to be harvested, just be careful to get them before the birds do. Simply snip off whole clusters from the stem with gardening shears and put them in a clean bucket. Strip the berries off each cluster by hand (Phillips 328). This is probably the most time consuming part of growing these low maintenance plants.

Usefulness to Wildlife
Elderberry is an extremely useful tool for improving forest structure to create more habitat for wildlife, especially because it is so easy to establish, spreads readily, and requires little to no maintenance. Although it requires a fairly open forest, elderberry creates a great midstory plant, adding vegetation to the vertical structure of your woodlot if provided a fair amount of sun. Creating areas where elderberry will grow readily also encourages the growth of other useful wildlife plants, such as brambles. Elderberry grows best near water and does an excellent job at stabilizing stream banks, creating habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms. Sambucus’ dense foliage also provides shade over water, cooling water temperatures (NRCS).
Deer, elk, and moose browse on the shoots and foliage throughout the year, as well as the endangered valley elderberry longhorn beetle mentioned earlier. The massive umbel flowers provide huge amounts of nectar for specialist insects, generalist insects, and hummingbirds alike.

Elderflowers ready to be made into fermented elderflower soda.

Food and Medicinal Products
Although a bit bitter on their own, elderberries have long been used for just about anything you can think of to do with berries, including jams, pies, syrups, and wine. Before the berries begin to grow, the large, white umbel-shaped elderflowers are a delicacy in their own right. Their sweet floral taste lends itself well to desserts such as elderflower syrup, pancakes, cordials, sorbets, and jellies to name a few. Some adventurous eaters even batter the flowers and fry them! Of course, they also make an excellent garnish to salads, desserts, or cocktails as well as a lovely tea.
Elderflowers and elderberries are both highly medicinal and have their own uses. These are most often taken in a syrup form, although they can be made into hard candies as well. As I mentioned previously, elderflower is wonderful as an herbal tea.
Mountain Rose Herbs. A herbs, health and harmony c

Medicinal Properties of Elderberry and Elderflower
Elderberry and elderflower have been used for their medicinal properties for thousands of years and probably thousands of uses as well. Today, it is toted as a powerful immune stimulant and is widely used to treat colds,  flu, and influenza. Elderflower tea is often used to break a fever (Gottlieb 300). Elderflower is also widely used externally for skin issues such as burns, rashes, and sunburn and is often found in cosmetics (Howard 154). Elderberry is used for allergies, congestion, ear and throat infections, inflammation of mucus membranes,  arthritis, and rheumatism as well. It is considered to be anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and diuretic (Foster and Johnson 151). Elderberry is extremely high in vitamin C (NRCS).

Other Products
While elder makes for excellent food and medicine for humans, as well as an amazing wildlife plant and river bank stabilizer, there are many more uses. The berries and stems have long been used as dyestuffs for basketry, creating a dark, black color. The hollow stems were used for many purposes, including arrow shafts, flutes, and whistles. The pith was used as tinder for fire starting and the stem was used as a hand drill stalk to create a coal. The fire maker could then blow through the hollow stem to ignite the coal into a flame. The stems were also split and used to make clapper sticks, an instrument that makes noise when the two sides are hit together (NRCS).

Marketability and Economics
According to University of Missouri’s 2014 Elderberry Marketing Guide, “Berry prices tend to depend on whether the seller markets berries on the stem or berries that have been de-stemmed and to whom the seller is making a sale. For fresh berries sold to a winery, prices may range from $0.50 per pound for berries on the stem to $5 per pound for de-stemmed berries. Prices may be as high as $11 per pound for berries sold to dietary supplement manufacturers. As typical rules of thumb, producers may anticipate $1 per pound for fresh elderberry clusters and $2 per pound for de-stemmed berries”.

Those prices are just for fresh berries, though, and the potential for profit on value added products could be highly lucrative.

Poisonous Parts
Elderberries should be cooked before consuming to break down the nausea inducing alkaloids sambucucine and hydrocyanic acid. While those may sound scary, there is no reason to worry, it is perfectly safe to consume after being heated. Both blue and purple-black berries are safe to eat, but there is one species of elderberry that produces red berries. These are undoubtedly poisonous and should not be consumed (NRCS). The seeds, leaves, stems, or roots of any species of elderberry should not be eaten either as they contain a compound similar to cyanide (UMM).

Looking for more resources?

Works Cited

"American Elder." NRCS Plant Fact Sheet (2016): n. pag. USDA. Plant Materials Program, 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

"Common Elderberry." Plant Guide. USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program, 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

"Coppicing." RHS Gardening. Royal Horticultural Society, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Dirr, Michael A. Photographic Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Form and Function in the Landscape. Champaign, IL: Stipes, 1978. Print.

"Elderberry Marketing Guide." Alternative Agriculture Resource Guide. University of Missouri, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

"Elderberry." University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Foster, Steven, and Rebecca L. Johnson. Desk Reference to Nature's Medicine. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006. Print.
Gottlieb, Bill, and Doug Dollemore. New Choices in Natural Healing: Over 1,800 of the Best Self-help Remedies from the World of Alternative Medicine. Emmaus, Penn.: Rodale, 1995. Print.
Heather. "How to Grow Elderberries From Cuttings." Web log post. Mommypotamus. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Howard, Michael. Traditional Herbal Remedies: An Illustrated A-z Guide. Surrey: Merchant Book, 2003. Print.
Jacke, Dave, and Eric Toensmeier. Edible Forest Gardens. Vol. 2. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2005. Print.
Logsdon, Gene. Successful Berry Growing; How to Plant, Prune, Pick, and Preserve Bush and Vine Fruits. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, Book Division, 1974. Print.
Phillips, Michael. Holistic Orchard. N.p.: Chelsea Green, 2013. Print.
"Sambucus Nigra L. Subsp. Canadensis (L.) R. Bolli American Black Elderberry." NRCS Plant Database. USDA, 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Westover, Jessica. "How to Grow Black Elderberry by Seed Indoors." Home Guides. SFGATE, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Disclaimer: This blog is just my own opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be completely accurate or complete. Sorry, I'm only human, so do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog (seriously not very much at all guys). If you click on any of the links in my blog I may make money from it, at no extra cost to you. I'm not sponsored by any of these people I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medical practitioner; consult a health professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment.  

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