How To Grow Elderberry Plants: Full Guide To Planting & Care

Whether you consider it as a tree or a shrub, the elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a good addition to your garden. With a growth rate between 6 to 12 feet during the first three years, the elderberry takes only two years from the time you plant it to flower and bear fruits.

Its lush green leaves with serrated edges give the elderberry great ornamental properties making it the focal point in your garden. 

The berries develop in the fall and turn black when ripe. Elderberries are toxic to animals and humans when consumed raw. The same applies to the leaves, seeds, and twigs of the plant. You should cook the berries to break down the toxins before consuming them.

Read more to find out how to grow elderberry plants and how to take care of them.

1. Select Elderberry Variety

The elderberry is native to the USA and that is good news if you want to grow it in your garden. You won’t have trouble getting it adjusted to the microclimate in your area or worry about local pests and diseases.

That said, you still have to choose the right elderberry variety to suit your needs. Some cultivars have better ornamental values while others produce more berries every year. Here are the top elderberry varieties and which regions they’re suitable for.

  • Adams: A cold-hardy cultivar with white flowers and berries that turn dark purple when ripe. The average cultivar reaches between 6 to 10 feet tall and is hardy to zones 3 to 9. 
  • Lemony Lace: With feathery, light-green leaves, white flowers, and red berries, this elderberry is a showy plant to grow in your garden. It resists wildlife, tolerates heavy rain and strong winds, and grows best in zones 3 to 7. It only reaches 5 feet tall and wide at maturity.
  • Black Beauty: This cultivar originally was developed in Europe but it grows well in zones 4 to 7. It has dark green leaves and lemon-scented pink flowers. It favors moist or even wet soil and doesn’t grow above 6 feet tall at full maturity. This makes it an ideal choice to grow in a container.
  • Black Lace: This cultivar also has dark green leaves that look like lace and pinkish blooms. It is hardy to zones 4 to 7 and grows to about 7 feet tall. However, you can prune it regularly to manage its height.
  • Blue: This is a natural elderberry species that grows mainly on the West Coast of the United States. It grows well in zones 3 to 10 and has a high tolerance for warm conditions. The berries are bluish when ripe and packed with flavors. It often reaches 30 feet tall with a 10-foot spread.

2. Choose & Prepare Planting Site

Once you have selected the right elderberry cultivar to grow in your garden, you need to choose the right spot to plant it and prepare the soil in advance. Depending on the specific cultivar you want to grow, you need to make sure there’s enough space for the elderberry to grow. 

Ideal Soil for Elderberries

Although some elderberry cultivars prefer moist soil, you should make sure the soil is well-drained. Loamy soil is the right choice since it doesn’t dry out quickly and has a good drainage rate.

If the soil is clay, add perlite or coarse sand to improve its texture, aeration, and drainage. You also need to check the pH levels of the soil and make sure they are between 5.5 and 6.5. 

Elderberry Light Requirements

Your elderberry will need between 6 to 8 hours of light every day throughout the growing season. Full sun is a prerequisite for the flowering and fruiting of the tree. So choose a spot in the garden that faces either the west or south to get the most of the sunlight in the spring and summer.

Avoid planting the elderberry tree in the shade of a larger tree since that will impact the elderberry’s ability to bear flowers.

Preparing To Plant

Before you plant the elderberry sapling, you need to prepare the soil first. Since elderberries don’t do well with competition, you need to clear the area of weeds, other plants, and debris. Make sure there’s enough room for the elderberry to grow and spread.

Turn up the top 12 inches of the soil and sprinkle organic compost. Work the compost well into the soil with a rake and let the soil rest under the sun for a week. 

If you need to plant more than one elderberry tree in the garden for cross-pollination purposes, then space them 30 to 40 feet apart.

3. Plant

After preparing the soil, you’re ready to plant the elderberry sapling. Don’t take the sapling out of the package or pot it came in until you have dug the hole in the soil. Exposing the roots to the air for too long can shock the plant. 

When To Plant Elderberry

The best time to plant your elderberry is in the spring. Wait until the last frost is over and the soil becomes workable. Some elderberry varieties are hardy to cold weather, however, the young sapling is vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions.

How To Plant Elderberry

Some elderberries are best grown from seed while others can be started from a cutting. If you have access neither to seeds nor to a mature elderberry tree to get a cutting from, you can order a sapling from your local nursery.

Here I’ll explain how to start your elderberry from a cutting. If you’re planting a sapling, you can skip to Step 4.

  1. Choose a young and soft branch on a mature elderberry tree. Cut 8 inches off the branch at a 45-degree angle to improve root development. Remove the leaves except for one or two sets of leaves at the top.
  2. Dip the cutting in root growth hormone and place it in a mason jar and fill it halfway with water. Keep it in a sunny spot for 6 to 8 weeks. Change the water twice a week. 
  3. When the roots are between 5 to 6 inches long, you can plant the elderberry sapling in the garden.
  4. Dig a hole about 2 feet deep and three feet wide. Mix the soil you dug up with organic compost at a ratio of 1:1.
  5. Fill back the hole with the amended soil leaving enough space to accommodate the root ball of the sapling.
  6. Place the sapling in the middle of the hole and spread the roots to fill up the bottom.
  7. Backfill the hole with the remaining soil and pack it firmly to make sure the sapling is standing upright.
  8. Water the elderberry immediately to reduce the transplant shock and help the soil settle.

4. Mulch Well

Since elderberries favor cool and moist conditions, you need to make sure that the soil has good water retention. One way to do that is to use mulch. Either rotted hay or bark mulch will do.

Spread a 3-inch layer around the base of the elderberry sapling. Make sure the mulch doesn’t touch the stem to avoid stem rot and fungal infections.

5. Elderberry Watering Guide

On average, you should give the elderberry between 1 to 2 inches of water a week during the spring and summer. In the first year, the elderberry tends to focus mainly on developing its vast root system.

Since the roots are shallow at this stage, you need to provide enough water to keep the topsoil moist. Once the tree establishes, you can cut back the water to one inch a week during the growing season. In the fall and winter, the tree only needs half that weekly water quota.

6. Fertilizing Elderberry

Although you amended the soil with plenty of organic compost before planting the elderberry, the tree will need more nutrients as it develops its canopy and starts to flower.

Every year in the early spring apply a generous portion of organic compost before covering it with a thick layer of rotted hay for mulch. That’s all the fertilizing the elderberry needs.

7. Pruning Elderberry

With its medium growth rate, the elderberry doesn’t need much pruning. However, as the tree ages, its canes become woody and bear fewer berries every year. You need to cut those old canes to trigger new growth.

The young green branches that replace them will carry more berries as they develop. The best time to prune the elderberry is in the late winter or early spring before the first signs of new growth.

Some elderberry varieties develop suckers and runners. You need to cut off those suckers and runners before they establish in the soil and become invasive. 

8. Elderberry Pests and Diseases

Since elderberries are native to North America, they have high resistance to the pests and diseases in your region. The most common pests that attack the elderberry are mealybugs, aphids, scales, and elder shoot borers. Neem oil spray is a good option to eliminate these pests.

As for diseases, elderberries are prone to root rot in waterlogged soil, as well as powdery mildew in humid conditions and leaf spots, and canker.

9. When To Harvest Elderberries

Elderberries are ripe in the late summer or early fall. Signs of maturity include the berries becoming soft and turning dark purple or black depending on the cultivar. You have a short window to harvest your berries before birds pick them off the tree. 

10. How To Use Elderberries

Elderberries should never be consumed raw as they’re quite toxic for humans and pets. You can use the berries in jams, pies, wines, and syrups. The flowers also make wonderful arrangements and have a soothing effect. Elderberry tinctures are used to treat the common cold and the flu.

Growing Elderberries in Pots

Certain elderberry cultivars such as Lemony Lace and Black Beauty are more suitable for container growing due to their manageable size. Plant the elderberry in an adequate container measuring 24 inches wide and 20 inches deep. Use loamy soil mixed with organic compost in equal portions. Water the pot regularly to keep the soil moist.

Keep the potted elderly in a sunny spot but protect it from the summer afternoon sun. Repot it regularly as the elderberries get root bound quite fast.

How To Grow Elderberry From Seed

The best time to grow elderberries from seeds is in the fall. Prepare the soil by mixing it with organic compost and plant the seed a quarter-inch deep into the soil. Cover it with a light layer of soil and water it to get the top two inches of the soil moist.

Keep the soil moist until the first frost. Afterward, water only when the soil dries out until the next spring.

Common Questions About Elderberry Plants:

How Fast Do Elderberry Bushes Grow?

Elderberry bushes do not have a fast growth rate. They take up to three years to grow between 6 to 12 feet. 

Do Elderberries Ripen After Being Picked?

Elderberries ripen on the tree. If picked before they’re fully ripe, the berries will not ripen and become unusable. Unripe berries have no flavors and the toxins will not break down even after being cooked. Avoid consuming elderberries unless they’re dark purple or black.

Is Elderberry Invasive?

Some elderberry varieties develop suckers and runners that establish and start new plants if given the chance. These varieties are considered invasive since they’re hard to manage and control.

However, the majority of cultivars that you can find in your local nursery are non-invasive types. They don’t have suckers or runners, so the chances of them spreading and becoming invasive are quite low. 

Conclusion

The elderberry is an ornamental plant with showy flowers and serrated leaves. Some cultivars are developed for ornamental purposes while others bear delicious berries. Many parts of the elderberry plant are toxic for humans and pets including the berries, twigs, and leaves.

Don’t eat raw elderberries and when ripe, cook them to make jams, syrups, and pies.

Leave a Comment