Growing the Common Elderberry - Sambucus nigra

Flowers and buds of Elder
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Whenever I hear the name elderberry, my mind instantly wanders to thoughts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In addition to being fodder for British comedies, this shrub makes a lovely addition to your garden with its leaves, sprays of flowers, and fruits. It also has medicinal and culinary uses.

Wait until the black fruits are fully ripened or else they are poisonous. Cook them instead of eating them raw. Some people can be allergic to the fruit or flowers.

Latin Name:

This plant is categorized as Sambucus nigra. It is a member of the Caprifoliaceae Family, which also contains the ​viburnum trees and shrubs (Viburnum spp.), beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) and weigelas (Weigela spp.) Some have it in a newer family called Adoxaceae.

Common Names:

This is a shrub of many names and may be seen as common elderberry, black elderberry, common elder, black elder, Judas tree, bore tree, pipe tree, European elderberry, blue elderberry, elder bush and European elder.

Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones:

If you are in Zones 5-7, you should be able to plant this shrub in your yard. It is native to northern Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Size & Shape of the Common Elderberry:

At maturity, Sambucus nigra will be up to 20' tall depending on which variety you choose to grow. It can form into a round mound or a small tree.


This plant can be successfully grown in a location that has either full sun or part shade.

Foliage/Flowers/Fruit of the Common Elderberry:

The leaves are compound and have 3-9 leaflets that are in an opposite arrangement.

The small white flowers form in a cluster called a cyme and are produced during the summer. They are sometimes used in wines, cordials, and syrups.

In the fall, you can start collecting the small black fruit after the are completely ripe.

As a reminder, they should be cooked before eating for safety.

Design Tips For the Common Elderberry:

Varieties with purple leaves include 'Black Beauty', 'Black Lace', 'Purpurea' and 'Thundercloud'.

If you would like leaves that are variegated, look for 'Albo-variegata', 'Madonna' and 'Pulverulenta'.

This is a lovely addition for a wildlife garden. Birds are especially known to snack on the fruits. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds will also visit.

Growing Tips:

This shrub can grow in many different types of soils.

New plants can be propagated through cuttings or seeds. Cuttings are needed if you are working with a specific cultivar.


The common elderberry is very tolerant of pruning and can be cut all the way down to the ground in late winter to help keep the shrub healthy and neat.

You will need to prune away suckers to keep this in check or it may spread throughout your garden.

Elderberry Recipes to Try:

Pests & Diseases of the Common Elderberry:

There usually aren't too many pest problems with this shrub. You may potentially see some of the following:

  • Aphids (Aphis sambuci)
  • Birds
  • Currant borer (Synanthedon tipuliformis)
  • Elder shoot borer (Achatodes zeae)
  • Eriophyid mites (Eriophyidae Family)
  • Fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea)
  • Gall mite (Epitrimerus trilobus)
  • Grape mealybug (Pseudococcus maritimus)
  • Marbled orchard tortrix (Hedya nubiferana)
  • Potato flea beetles (Epitrix spp.)
  • Rose chafer (Macrodactylus subspinosus)
  • San Jose scale (Quadraspidiotus perniciosus)
  • Sap beetles (Nitidulidae Family)
  • Thrips (Order Thysanoptera)
  • Two-spotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae)
  • Voles

You will also probably not have much disease problems. Ones that may appear include:

  • Anthracnose
  • Cankers
  • Elder whitewash fungus (Hyphodontia sambuci)
  • Rots & decays
  • Powdery mildew
  • Tomato ringspot virus (Nepovirus spp.)
  • Verticillium wilt