American Elderberry Plant Profile

Elderflower on tree

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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. Each spring the 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.

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

How to Grow American Elderberries

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, amend the soil with compost. Then, fertilize annually with additional compost in the springtime.

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

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

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

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.

Harvesting

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. Harvest from August to September, when the fruit is soft and dark purple in color. Remove the entire fruit cluster using pruning shears and then strip the berries.

Toxicity of American Elderberries

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

Varieties of American Elderberry Shrubs

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.