How to Grow Common Elderberry

Flowers and buds of Elder

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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 common elderberry is also known for its medicinal and culinary qualities—elderberry fruits can be eaten and cooked with, but only when they are fully ripened (unripe fruits are considered poisonous).

Best planted in early spring after the final frost, common 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 black 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
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 3–9 (USDA)
Native Area North America
Toxicity Toxic to dogs and cats

Common Elderberry Care

Common 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 common 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 from the common elderberry shrub have a storied history in the medicinal community. They're lauded for their unique antioxidant properties (as well as vitamin contents) and are often made into tinctures or other remedies to help with colds, the flu, and more. They are quite sour on their own though, 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.

Light

Common 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.

Soil

For the most successful bush, plant your common 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 common 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.

Water

When it comes to the common 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 common elderberry.

Temperature and Humidity

Common 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!

Fertilizer

While fertilizing your common 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.

Is Common Elderberry Toxic?

Despite its many edible and medicinal uses, common elderberry is in fact toxic to pets in its unripened form. If the berries are eaten before they're ready to be harvested, the toxin amygdalin can make animals ill (it ripens out of the berry as they age). If you notice any of the symptoms below, contact a vet or emergency services immediately, as poisoning can be rapidly fatal for your furry friend.

Symptoms of Poisoning

  • Bright red blood
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • The smell of bitter almonds on breath

Common Pests and Diseases

While there aren't too many problems that arise when growing common elderberry, you may end up dealing with familiar issues such as aphids, mealybug, elder shoot borer, and scale. Additionally, common 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.