When poking around for useful plants for my small suburban yard the idea of growing elderberries came up. Are you wanting another addition to an edible landscape used also for medicinal properties for some people? Look no further.
Many elderberry varieties were hardy even in zone 7 and this bush was a favorite in my old yard. They grow very rapidly and when in season I’d get rewarded with mountains of berries to be used for various recipes. This bush as well as my fig tree were also the backbone to home I funded my operation back when I had no money.
With even minimal effort I could propagate them and sell them when they reached my desired selling size. But that is a topic for another post.
In this guide I want to focus on how to grow this wonderful bush and what they need to thrive.
Soil types and choosing a site
The nice thing about elderberries is they are found already all over most of the North American continent and are absent in only a handful of states. They are usually really easy to grow and are a powerhouse of usefulness. They are a native so do well in most soils, you get these flushes of flowers which attract in your pollinators, you get these and you get delicious berries to eat.
What was nice about my old yard and elderberries was the soil was this thick red clay that a lot of plants didn’t like at first. Elderberries did extremely well even despite the clay issue.
Elderberries are more of what is known as an understory shrub so they do particular well near wooded areas. They do need some sunlight to not get choked out but they like that afternoon shade.
How to Get Elderberry Plants: Propagating or buying
If you do a little asking around, chances are good you can find someone with an elderberry bush who is more than happy to give you some cuttings either for free or for a low price. You really just need those first few cuttings to get going.
The normal time to collect propagation material for a lot of wooded plants is usually early spring. This is when the woody material is gearing up to send up spring growth anyway and the results are good with getting those roots especially.
You want to get a cutting tool where you can cut off a new shoot. You should be able to tell as the growth will be vibrant green and the stems should be very pliable. These are preferable to the older stems that are rigid and woody.
Water– Now when trying to get roots on cuttings like this you can do this a couple of ways. A popular way is to let them sit in water and wait 6-8 weeks or so until you see some roots. The root growth needs to be hefty before transplanting them into a more permanent dirt home.
Soil– The other way to root these cuttings is by using soil. Some people plant the cutting directly into potting soil that is kept damp and humid though not excessively wet. The soil around the bottom area of the stem should have good contact with the propagation material.
When I use soil method I stick them in a plastic container to keep the humidity and moisture just right.
Moss– A third option is usually how I root my houseplants. You get that plastic container (Clear storage box, recycled salad container, tupperware, dish with a ziploc etc.) and instead fill it up with a lot of some sort of growing medium like sphagnum moss, perlite, or LECA. It helps to dip the cutting in rooting hormone or something like Clonex though those are optional and you can try homemade rooting hormone if desired (works for soil method too). You can then place the end you want roots into the medium, close it up, and wait.
When I wanted some elderberries I was fortunate that a local nursery had them on hand. If you look around chances are you can find a reputable seller to acquire from.
For a small list with good reputation you could choose from any of the below or do some digging around online until you find a source you like.
It should be noted that when these ship in they often look like dead sticks. This is alright as a little light and sun they flush very quickly with growth. Just pop them in the ground and get them growing
Elderberry Growth Habit
Spread and self-propagate
Elderberry plants grow pretty big over time. They usually top out at 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide if all things go well. You have to plan for that ahead of time. When planting or trying to figure out where to stick them in the yard.
It is important to note that they can be trimmed and kept relatively small if need be though the ideal is to give them all the space they would want.
What is also really nice about elderberries is they tend to send off rhizomes and these rhizomes eventually break ground and pop up into a new bush. Plants that have a spreading habit are annoying to some people but they have always been my favorites. Who doesn’t like digging up a whole other plant that can be planted elsewhere or sold for more supplies?
Elderberries are the type of shrub that loose their leaves every fall and leave behind these huge bare sticks called canes. You get new growth every spring and new branches.
Elderberry are very similar to raspberries and blackberries in the sense that they need to be pruned back now and then to keep the canes fresh and productive. Elderberry canes can create fruit from old growth as well as the new canes.
After a few years the older growth will be less plentiful and that is when you prune them off to keep your shrub producing well.
Pollination and Fruiting
When ordering elderberries it is useful to know that cross pollination tends to help with fruit production. It isn’t always required but it does give noticeable increase in berry harvest.
You can tell when you have fruit coming in as somewhere around July or so you will see these tiny green berries. The berries will ripen for a long while until they hit a purple that is so dark it is almost black.
For best fruit set their main shot of fertilizer should be early in the growing season and avoided while they are setting and creating fruit.
You can tell pretty easily when the berries are ready to be turned into kitchen delights. The berries practically fall off the bush when they are done turning color and ripening. If they do not remove easily it is best to give them more time.
I used to just get out the garden shears and cut ripened berry clusters and bring them inside to use them for a recipe. You do not want to eat these raw as they do carry some toxicity until heated and cooked properly.
Also be sure to wear some gloves and maybe an apron as staining isn’t uncommon as you will inevitably get berry juice everywhere.
How to Prune
Elderberries tend to get big so it isn’t uncommon to want to cut them back to get them a little better under control. People also like to routinely cut unproductive canes of the plant to get the production going good again with the new growth.
The best time to trim up elderberries is near end of year when the plant is dormant. Pruning during dormancy has the least impact on the plant in terms of health. You want to make mental note or even mark off sections of the plant that aren’t very productive.
End Note About Toxicity
One place to hesitate is that this is a toxic plant to domesticated pets. If you have a dog that is notorious for chewing everything or destroying everything with their mouth then you want to make a guard around the shrub. My dogs never bothered them, but it is something to keep in mind.
As mentioned above the berries have toxic alkaloids and other things that have to be heated in order to be neutralized. You need to do a preparation with the berries where they reach at least 180F.
Most recipes for them will have you processing them somewhere between 350 and 400. But they can be processed prior by simmering for a while or dehydrated above 180F. Once they are heat processed they are no longer a threat.
In all my years of working elderberries I’ve never had a cause for concern when working them.