Elderberries are one of the easiest and most versatile shrubs to grow in your edible landscape. These Central European and North American natives are often found growing wild along roadsides, forest edges, and abandoned fields.
The prize for growing elderberries is the fragrant, edible flowers and the delicious fruits. The dark purple berries contain vitamins A and B, and more vitamin C than oranges. They are also high in cancer-fighting antioxidants. In fact, elderberry fruits have historically been used to treat many ailments, such as respiratory problems, colds, and flus. Plus, they are tasty when used in juices, jellies, jams, teas, pies, and wine. You can use the umbrella-shaped, elderberry blossoms for making a delicious fritters. And if you don't want to eat the berries, the birds certainly will love them.
Not only do elderberries produce attractive 8- to 10-inch-diameter white flowers and clusters of small, dark purple fruits, there are newer varieties on the market that have colorful leaves, too. These varieties of elderberry were bred for the ornamental characteristics, but still produce useful flowers and fruits. They make great shrubs for a foundation planting or in a mixed perennial flower border.
The two most common types of elderberries available are the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). The American elderberry is the wild species often found growing in old fields and meadows. It grows 10 to 12 feet tall and wide and is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8. The European elderberry grows up to 20 feet tall and wide depending the variety, blooms earlier than the American species, is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8, and some have pink flowers. The red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is similar to the American species, but produces bright red berries -- unfortunately these berries are poisonous and shouldn't be eaten.
Elderberries fruit best when you plant at least two different varieties within 60 feet of each other. They start producing when the plants are 2 to 3 years old. While all elderberries produce berries, there are several varieties of the American elderberry that are especially good fruit producers. If you looking for a more ornamental elderberry, look to the European varieties with their attractive foliage.
'Black Lace' elderberry is a diminutive shrub with black cutleaf foliage reminiscent of Japanese maple leaves.
Here are some of the best selections to try in your yard.
Elderberries grow well in full- to part-sun locations. They are not fussy about soil type, but grow best in a slightly acidic soil that is high in organic matter and stays consistently moist. Some of the European varieties may die back to the ground in colder climates, but will resprout from the roots in spring.
Before planting amend the soil with compost. Although elderberries grow well in moist soils, it's a myth they can grow in poorly drained, wet soils. On heavy clay soils, consider building a raised bed to provide proper water drainage. Set shrubs out in spring, spacing plants 6 to 10 feet apart depending on the variety.
Elderberries grow best when fertilized annually with compost. They have shallow roots, so mulch around the plants with hay, straw, or bark chips to control weeds that compete for water and nutrients.
Elderberry flowers are flat, white, and large, and can be used to make delicious fritters.
Elderberries can sucker freely and send up vigorous new branches each season. These one-year-old branches produce side branches (laterals) that fruit heavily in the second and third year. In late winter, prune out branches more than 3 years old since these are less productive. Try to leave equal numbers of one-, two-, and three-year-old branches. Prune out any dead, diseased, or broken branches as well.
There are few significant insect pests and diseases of elderberries. Cane borers can infect older branches, so the above pruning guidelines also help control borers, too. During wet weather, leaf diseases sometimes affect the foliage, but they aren't a serious concern. Birds love the berries, and you'll need to cover the shrub with netting to keep them from quickly harvesting your crop.
Harvest elderberry fruit from August to September, depending on the variety. Let fruits ripen on the shrub to a dark purple color. Prune off the entire cluster when ripe and strip the berries into a bowl. The fruit doesn't store well at room temperature, so keep it refrigerated after harvest and process the berries as soon as possible. You can expect yields of 12 to 15 pounds of fruit per mature (3- or 4-year-old) shrub, if grown properly. Uncooked berries produce a dark purple juice and are astringent and inedible, but when processed impart a sweet, earthy flavor.