How to Grow American Elderberry

Elderflower on tree

Renáta Dobránska / Getty Images 

The American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a deciduous shrub that comes from North America. It is also known as the pie elder, American elder, black elderberry, elder-blow, sweet elder, or just elderberry. In late June, this fast-growing plant is covered with clusters of tiny white flowers that are followed by purplish-black fruit. The flowers and fruit have applications in alternative medicine, though its sibling (common elderberry, or Sambucus nigra) is the species that is usually used for healing.

The botanical name associated with this shrub is Sambucus canadensis and it is in the Adoxaceae family or Caprofoliaceae, depending on the botanist. Some consider this to be a subspecies of the common elderberry and write the name as Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis. It should be planted in the spring.

Botanical Name Sambucus canadensis
Common Name American Elderberry
Plant Type Shrub
Mature Size 10–15 feet
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Rich, well-draining, loamy
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 3–10
Native Area North America
Toxicity Stems, leaves, roots, seeds, and uncooked berries are toxic to humans and dogs.

American Elderberry Care

American elderberry shrubs are prolific in the wild, so it's no surprise that when planted in a garden, they're easy to maintain and tolerate a wide variety of growing conditions. Once established, elderberry shrubs will be with you for the long haul.

American elderberry shrubs are 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, growing into a rounded shape. They're an excellent addition to a wildlife garden since birds love to eat the fruit. Its flowers will also attract butterflies. If you have a stream or pond on your property, elderberries can provide erosion control when planted on the banks.

Although they will usually thrive even when neglected, if you're growing elderberry shrubs for fruit, you can maximize your harvest by following the guidelines outlined below.

Light

Elderberry shrubs need full sun exposure to partial shade.

Soil

The American elderberry is a good choice if you have a location that tends to be moist or wet. That said, the site should also drain well to discourage root rot. Elderberry shrubs are able to handle a pH range from acidic to alkaline, but do best in slightly acidic soil.

Water

Elderberries need a lot of water, but as long as the roots have had a chance to anchor themselves, the shrub can handle periods of drought. The soil around an elderberry shrub should be moist, but not waterlogged.

Temperature and Humidity

American elderberry shrubs' easygoing nature extends to temperature and humidity as well. While elderberries thrive in zones 3–11, they're deciduous through zone 8, and evergreen in zones 9–11, where there is no frost.

Fertilizer

Before planting American elderberry shrubs, turn the soil with compost. Then, fertilize annually with additional compost in the springtime.

Is American Elderberry Toxic?

An elderberry's leaves, stems, roots, seeds, and raw berries are poisonous to people and pets, containing chemicals which can metabolize into cyanide. Cooking the berries will destroy the toxins.

Symptoms of Poisoning

For humans, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are the most common symptoms of consuming elderberry. Coma can happen in rare instances. Pets experience similar reactions, and may also drool and have breathing trouble or seizures. Both people and pets should seek medical care immediately, as this is an urgent situation.

American Elderberry Varieties

  • 'Aurea' cultivar': a shrub with yellow leaves, and red fruit instead of black
  • 'Variegata': for foliage with variegation
  • 'Laciniata': offers lacy dissected leaves
  • 'Adams No. 1,' 'Adams No. 2,' 'York,' and 'Johns': produce an abundance of large drupes, and are cultivars most used if you're cooking the fruit

Pruning

This shrub does tend to form a lot of suckers. This can be a beneficial characteristic if you're trying to populate a native garden inexpensively, for instance, but it can be annoying otherwise. It may even become invasive in some areas. Your local garden center should know if this is the case.

You can make the shrubs into a standard (small tree) form by choosing and developing a central leader. Otherwise, it is usually a multi-trunked shrub.

Plan on removing dead, damaged and diseased canes (flexible branches) at the start of spring. You should also remove canes that are over three years old since younger ones produce better and this pruning will encourage new growth. Pruning can also be used to make a shrub's appearance neater, as it can become a bit lanky.

Propagating American Elderberries

Elderberry can be propagated by taking cuttings and rooting them. Use rooting hormone, to protect them from bacteria and fungus. Keep cuttings in a jar filled with clean water, for at least two months. Refill the water as needed, mist occasionally. Once strong roots have grown, you can plant them directly into your garden, in a well-draining area with partial shade.

How to Grow American Elderberries From Seed

Elderberry can be grown from seeds but it's a tricky process. Seeds can take a couple of years to germinate, requiring something called stratification. Guidance for soaking and the need to refrigerate seeds varies, but according to the University of California, seeds can be collected from berries that have been mashed and covered in cold water for 24 hours. Skim off pulp and floating seeds, drain, and then strain and wash seeds left at the bottom of the soaking container. Dry seeds. To stratify, spread seeds on moist paper towels, and place in plastic storage bags. Refrigerate, Keep seeds moist for the 60-90 day period it takes to germinate, and check on them periodically to see if this has happened. Once germinated, plant immediately.

Potting and Repotting American Elderberries

Elderberries have shallow roots, making them perfect for container planting. It's best to pot in spring, in an oversized pot, at least 2 feet wide and 20 inches deep. Make sure it has drainage holes (or create your own using a drill). Use a rich potting soil, with a ph of 5.5 to 6.5. Mulch the surface with compost and water frequently so they never dry out.

Common Pests/Diseases

Potential problems include aphids, birds, cecropia moth caterpillars (Hyalophora cecropia), currant borers, elder shoot borer (Achatodes zeae), Eriophyid mites, fall webworms, grape mealybugs, potato flea beetles, rose chafers, San Jose scales, sap beetles, sawfly larvae, spider mites, and thrips. For all pests, remove infested shoots and canes—and destroy all prunings—and use insecticidal soap if needed.

You may see cankers, dieback, leaf spots, powdery mildew, root rots, thread blight, tomato ringspot virus and Verticillium wilt on this elderberry species. Most diseases, other than tomato ringspot virus, can be remedied by reducing overhead watering, and pruning away infected branches.

Because elderberries have shallow roots, weeds can be a problem—when weeds are abundant, they can compete with the elderberry for water and nutrients. Manually remove weeds when you see them or use mulch, like hay or bark chips, as a natural weed control.