Growing the Common Elderberry Shrub

Sambucus nigra

Flowers and buds of Elder
Roel Meijer/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The common elderberry is a deciduous shrub with bright white flowers and small, dark berries. Known by many different names, including black elderberry, this shrub makes a lovely addition to a garden or landscape with its leaves, sprays of flowers, and fruits. It also has medicinal and culinary uses. Elderberry fruits are edible but only when they are fully ripened. The unripe fruits are considered poisonous. It's best to 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.). Sometimes Sambucus nigra is placed in a newer family called Adoxaceae.

Common Names

This is a shrub of many names, including 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 through 7, you should be able to plant this shrub in your yard. It is native to northern Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Size and Shape

At maturity, Sambucus nigra will be up to 20 feet tall, depending on the variety. It can form into a round mound or a small tree.

Exposure

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

Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit

The leaves are compound and have three to nine leaflets that are in an opposite arrangement. The small white flowers form in a cluster called a cyme and are produced during the summer. The are used in making wines, cordials, and syrups. In the fall, you can start collecting the small black fruit after they are completely ripe. As a reminder, they should be cooked before eating for safety. For some fun, you might like to try an elderberry flower fizzy drink or and elderberry tincture.

Design Tips for Common Elderberry

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'. Elderberry 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.

Maintenance and Pruning

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 them in check, or they may spread throughout your garden.

Pests and 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 many problems with diseases. Ones that may appear include:

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