The American elderberry, sometimes known as the common elderberry, is a deciduous shrub with bright white flowers and small, dark berries. Known by many different names, including black elderberry and American black elderberry, this shrub makes a lovely addition to any garden or landscape thanks to its lush green leaves, sprays of flowers, and edible fruits. Native to North America, the American elderberry is also known for its culinary qualities—elderberry fruits can be eaten and cooked with, but only when they are fully ripened.
Best planted in early spring after the final frost, American elderberry is a moderately-fast growing bush that can reach up to 12 feet tall and 6 feet across once mature. It can be planted outdoors successfully in USDA zones 3 through 9 and harvested once the berries are dark purple or black, typically in August or September.
|Botanical Name||Sambucus canadensis|
|Common Name||Common elderberry, black elderberry, American elderberry|
|Plant Type||Deciduous shrub|
|Mature Size||5–12 ft. tall, 3–6 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun, partial shade|
|Soil Type||Moist but well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral but acidic|
|Hardiness Zones||3–9 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people and pets; fruit is non-toxic to people once cooked|
American Elderberry Care
American elderberry is an easy-to-care-for shrub that can tolerate a variety of different growing conditions ranging from wet soil and rocky terrain to bright sun and lots of shade. The one thing they do need is plenty of water. Enough H2O will ensure that your plant not only thrives and grows but produces lots of berries.
For the first few years of growing American elderberry, just focus on allowing your bush to get established. Do the bare minimum when it comes to pruning your shrub and check it for invasive weeds (a common problem for the shallow-rooted plant) periodically. Don't expect to reap any huge berry harvests, either—you likely won't get a worthwhile harvest until your second or third year.
The berries are quite sour on their own, so if you opt to make them into a jam or pie, you'll want to use lots of sugar. Additionally, the small white flowers on the plant, which form in a cluster called a cyme, can be used to make wine, cordials, and syrups.
American elderberry can be grown in a variety of different sun locations, making it an ideal pick for nearly any spot in your yard or landscape. Though it can handle it all, it prefers a spot that boasts full sun or partial shade.
For the most successful bush, plant your American elderberry in a soil that is humusy and moist. That being said, the plant can tolerate a variety of soil conditions, but whatever you choose must be well-draining. A neutral-to-acidic pH level is recommended as well. When planting your American elderberry, choose a spot that isn't prone to standing water (the plants have shallow roots and can rot easily) and plant each shrub at least a few feet apart from one another to allow them to grow freely.
When it comes to the American elderberry, drought is pretty much the one thing it cannot tolerate. Your elderberry will need around an inch or two of water weekly during its peak growth period or during times of extremely hot or dry weather. Remember, the plant's roots are very close to the surface, so if the top layer of soil is dry, it's a good indication that they are too. As long as you have well-draining soil, there is little risk in overwatering the American elderberry.
Temperature and Humidity
American elderberry isn't picky about its temperature conditions, given its wide range of hardiness zones. That being said, it's a plant that would much rather be cool and moist than hot and dry. Though it prefers temperate weather, it does not have any special humidity needs—but it loves rain!
While fertilizing your American elderberry plant isn't totally necessary, it is a great way to ensure ample fruit growth. For starters, consider amending the soil you plant your bush in with manure or compost to increase its nutrient density. Beyond that, fertilizer your bush every spring with a 10-10-10 fertilizer mixture.
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
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.
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 and Diseases
While there aren't too many problems that arise when growing American elderberry, you may end up dealing with familiar issues such as aphids, mealybug, elder shoot borer, and scale. Additionally, American elderberry can be susceptible to a variety of diseases, including canker, leaf spot, and powdery mildew. Weeds are actually the most dangerous risk to the plant—gone untreated, they can easily choke out its shallow roots. Clear the soil frequently of any weeds you notice encroaching on your elderberry shrubs.