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How to Grow: Elderberries
full sun, part sun
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Spring with white or pink flowers. It also has attractive red or black berries
Mature Height x Spread
5 to 12 feet x 5 to 10 feet
Native, attracts beneficials Elderberries are common shrubs often found growing wild in meadows, abandoned fields and roadside ditches. They grow well in wet sites making them versatile in the landscape. This native plant is prized by bees and insects for its flat clusters of white or pink flowers, and by birds for their clusters of berries in summer. They are one of my favorite edible landscape shrubs. While some elderberry varieties feature large berries for eating, this edible landscape shrub also has newer varieties with a more ornamental plant form. Some varieties feature cut leaves that look like a Japanese maple while others have jet-black, yellow or variegated foliage that make for interesting contrasts with other shrubs and flowers in the garden.
When, Where and How to Plant
Elderberries are hardy throughout New England. Purchase plants from a local garden center and plant from spring to early fall in well-drained, fertile soil. Elderberries need constant moisture to grow and fruit their best. They grow well in wet areas, as long as there is no standing water. Plant in groups in spring spacing plants 5 to 8 feet apart.
Keep plants well watered. Fertilize elderberries in spring with a layer of compost and a small handful of an organic plant food. Mulch with wood chips or bark mulch to reduce competition from grasses and weeds and keep the soil moist.
Regional Advice and Care
Elderberries grow in a vase shape. Canes older than 3 years old will often be brittle and not leaf out, flower and fruit as well. Prune these old canes to the ground in early spring to stimulate new growth. Cover plants in early summer with bird netting if growing plants for the black fruits. The fruits make good jams, juice and wine. The flowers can be used to make champagne.
Companion Planting and Design
Grow elderberries for fruit on the edge of your vegetable garden or in an area with other edible shrubs, such as currants and gooseberries. Grow more ornamental varieties in a mixed shrub border or in the perennial flower garden. Place black foliaged varieties in back of brightly colored flowers, such as phlox and bee balm, to highlight those flowers. Plant wild species in wet areas as wildlife plantings. Elderberry will spread by suckers.
Varieties, such as ‘York’ and Adams’, are American varieties (S. canadensis) bred for their large, black berries. Grow these if you are looking for fruit production. For more ornamental varieties try the European varieties (S. nigra) such as ‘Black Lace’ with its cut-leaves and small stature. ‘Black Beauty’ has full-sized black leaves with pink flowers. ‘Aurea’ features greenish-yellow leaves. ‘Marginata’ has variegated yellow and green leaves and black fruits. The red-berried species (S. racemosa) blooms earlier than black fruited varieties, but the berries are not edible raw.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
One of my favorite mid summer flowering shrubs is the elderberry. It’s easy to grow, widely adapted, beautiful to look at, and produces tasty, healthful berries. It can also tolerate wet soils and still grow and produce well. That’s a plus with our spring and early summer weather this year. Elderberries are hardy to zone 3, so even gardeners in the far reaches of the Northeast Kingdom can grow them. While just collecting berries from wild shrubs growing in abandoned fields and meadows is fine, growing specific varieties for beauty or berry production is better. If you’re interested in berries, look for varieties such as ‘York’ and ‘Nova’ which produce large clusters and sized berries that are easy to harvest and process. If you’re growing them for an edible landscape shrub, try the purple-foliaged colored ‘Black Beauty’ or ‘Black Lace’ varieties. I particularly like ‘Black Lace’, because the leaves look like a Japanese maple tree. Plant shrubs 4 to 6 feet apart in full to part sun and preferably in well drained moist soil. The key with keeping them looking and producing well is pruning. Remove any dead, diseased or damaged branches in spring. Any branches older than 3 years should also be removed to encourage new growth. Elderberries produce the most flowers and berries on 1 and 2 year old shoots. To keep the birds away, use netting over the bushes. Harvest the white, flat flowers to make wine, champagne or to float as a relaxant in a hot bath. Use the berries to make juice, wine, or jam. Elderberry juice also makes a great winter tonic syrup. My friend Stephen mixes elderberry syrup, apple cider vinegar, and raw honey together for a tonic he swears keeps his family healthy all winter. Now for this week’s tip, sprinkle a cup of dried coffee grounds around blueberries and roses to promote greener leaves and stronger growth.