Growing the American Elderberry

Elderflower on tree

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The American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a deciduous shrub that comes from North America. Each year the plant will be 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.

You can plant this if your garden is in ​zones 3-10. It is native to eastern North America. This elderberry is 10-15' tall and wide, forming into a rounded shape. Elderberry plants need full sun exposure to partial shade is needed for this shrub.

Important note: You need to cook the fruit before eating or it can be poisonous. However, the fruit can be tasty and useful as long as you prepare it correctly. The rest of the plant is also potentially toxic.

Latin and Common Names

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.

This is known as American elderberry, pie elder, American elder, black elderberry, elder-blow, sweet elder or just elderberry.

Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit

The dark green leaves are pinnately compound. Each leaf is up to 13" long and made up of 5 to 11 leaflets.

One of the most attractive features of this shrub is the profusion of fragrant white blossom cymes (clusters) each summer. In warmer areas, they may appear throughout the year. This is a monoecious plant.

The fruit is purplish-black drupes (stone fruit) and can be used in jams, jellies, and preserves. You can make other recipes like elderberry tinctureelderflower champagne, elderflower cream, and elderflower vinaigrette.

Design Tips

Use this as part of a wildlife garden since birds love to eat the fruit. It will also attract butterflies.

If you want a shrub with yellow leaves, look for the 'Aurea' cultivar. That one also has red fruit instead of black. If you prefer foliage with variegation, choose 'Variegata'. For lacy dissected leaves, pick 'Laciniata'.

If you are planning on cooking the fruit, look for cultivars like 'Adams No. 1', 'Adams No. 2', 'York' and 'Johns' as these produce an abundance of large drupes.

Growing Tips

The American elderberry is a good choice if you have a location that tends to be moist or wet. You need to make sure that the site also drains well to discourage root rots. As long as the roots have had a chance to anchor themselves, the shrub can handle periods of drought. It is able to handle the pH range from acidic to alkaline.

There are several methods you can use to propagate these plants. You can save some of the seeds and germinate them. You can divide large plants. Finally, you can take cuttings and root them.

Maintenance and Pruning

This shrub does tend to form suckers a lot. This can be a beneficial characteristic if you're trying to populate a native garden inexpensively, for instance, but 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 this 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 its appearance neater as it can become a bit lanky.

Pests and 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.

You may see cankers, dieback, leaf spots, powdery mildew, root rots, thread blight, tomato ringspot virus and Verticillium wilt on this elderberry species.