How to Grow and Care for Elderberry Trees

Elderberries growing

The Spruce / David Karoki

The elderberry tree (Sambucus nigra), despite its name, has a shrub-like growth. It can be identified by its serrated leaves that grow in groups of three to nine leaves on each side of a stem. This tree has a moderate growth rate of 6 to 12 feet in the first few years of its growth. You may have to wait 2 to 3 years after planting before it bears fragrant, waxy white flowers in the spring and fruits in the autumn. Raw elderberries can be toxic to humans, dogs, and cats.

Common Name Elderberry, American elder, wild elderberry, common elderberry
Botanical Name Sambucus nigra, Sambucus Canadensis
Family Adoxaceae
Plant Type Shrub, woody perennial
Size 20-30 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Soil pH Neutral, acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Hardiness Zones 3-9 (USDA)
Native Area North America and Europe
Toxicity Toxic (when raw) to humans, toxic to dogs and cats
Elderberry plant
The Spruce / David Karoki

How to Plant Elderberry Trees

When to Plant

If you are planting elderberry shrubs from the nursery that are about a year old, put them in the ground in the spring after the last threat of frost if you live in the northern regions of the United States.

Selecting a Planting Site

Elderberries are not finicky plants and the shrubs tolerate many environments. Choose an open area that gets plenty of full sun a day for the best flowers and berries. A open area will also help the plants benefit from better air circulation.

Spacing, Depth, and Support

Elderberry bushes have shallow roots that are almost mat-like in their growth pattern. Continuous weeding is essential as elderberries can't compete well with aggressive weeds. If you are planting a row of elderberries, space them about 6 to 8 feet apart. If you are planting multiple rows of shrubs, plan on 10 feet between each row.

Elderberry flowers
The Spruce / David Karoki

Elderberry Tree Care

Elderberry trees grow plentifully in the wild, and depending on the variety, they can be found along river banks throughout the western and eastern parts of North America. When grown in gardens, elderberry shrubs need a slightly different environment.

Light

Elderberries prefer full sunlight, which will result in the most flowers and berries. Partial shade is fine if you are not anticipating buds or fruits.

Soil

Elderberry trees are not very finicky but they will do best in moist, well-drained, and moderately acidic soil. An elderberry plant will do well in clay soil but only if it is well-draining. They need moisture so they won't do well in sandy soil, but they can only tolerate flooding situations for a couple of days at most.

Water

Give your elderberry shrubs 1 to 2 inches of water per week in the summer. A new shrub will need extra water because its roots are so shallow that it can't access water from deep in the soil. For young plants, water 2 inches per week in the warm weather. Applying 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the plants will help the soil retain moisture and serve as an organic, slow-release fertilizer.

Temperature and Humidity

This hardy bush does not require a specific temperature or humidity level. However, this plant prefers to be cooler than sweltering.

Fertilizer

Fertilizing your elderberry is unnecessary when it is planted. However, after its first year, you might want to fertilize it yearly in the early spring. Fertilizing older elderberry bushes can be a bit tricky, Younger plants may need more nitrogen-rich fertilizer to stimulate growth, while older elderberries require much less nitrogen if they are vigorous producers. Always test the soil before applying fertilizer to make sure there is an actual nutrient deficiency in the soil that needs to be treated.

Pollination

Elderberries are typically wind-pollinated. However, gardeners can manually cross-pollinate bushes by planting at least two different cultivars no farther than 20 feet away from one another.

Types of Elderberry Trees

There are four types of elderberries and within those types are numerous varieties. The four types include the following:

  • American elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)
  • European or black elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
  • Red elderberry (Sambucus racemona)
  • Blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)

Many nurseries offer a variety of elderberry plants as well. If you have a particular use in mind, be sure to ask if the variety you're buying is suitable. Here are three popular varieties:

  • 'York': An American elderberry producing large berries. It is typically pollinated with 'Nova'. This shrub grows an average of 6 feet tall and wide.
  • 'Nova': Pollinated with 'York', this American elderberry variety offers large, sweet berries and grows to six feet tall.
  • 'Adams No. 1' and 'Adams No. 2' : This is an old cultivar and there are some tweaks to the original 'Adam' but both are reliable and productive fruiting varieties with small, sweet berries.

Harvesting Elderberry


The elderberry is a fantastic flowering tree that has many uses. Elderberries are harvested to be thoroughly cooked and prepared for jams, pies, syrups, wines, and used in tinctures for flu remedies. The berries will be ready to harvest in the late summer or early autumn when they are a rich, dark purple/black and are slightly soft.

Many gardeners like to use the elderberry flower in a calming potpourri mix because of its relaxing fragrance. The flowers of the elderberry tree should be harvested once the entire cluster has opened. Simply snip off the entire cluster of blooms. Be careful when harvesting the flowers because if you take too many of the blooms, it will impede the fruiting process.

Pile of elderberries
The Spruce / David Karoki
Elderberry syrup in a bowl
The Spruce / David Karoki

Pruning

As the shrub ages, it will need pruning. Older canes will not be able to produce as much fruit on their tips as they used to so these stems, along with dead ones, will need to be pruned in late winter to early spring so the bush does not waste energy on supporting non-producing wood. The shrubs can produce suckers and runners, so it's important to remove any unwanted shoots or they may take over your garden.

Propagating Elderberry Trees

Propagating the elderberry is easily done by berry-eating birds that drop the seeds they eat from the fruit. Those seeds usually take root and produce healthy trees. However, seeds manually harvested and propagated will not always sprout and they will not be duplicates of the parent plant. If you would like to make sure your elderberries are copies and planted where you'd like them, or you'd prefer to start a hedge of elderberry shrubs, you can use cuttings to propagate the plant. Here are easy steps to propagate elderberries with cuttings in water:

  1. Using a sterilized gardening cutting tool, take a 4- to 6-inch cutting of softwood (a soft branch with some spring to it) in the early spring. The cutting should be soft and a tiny bit green, but browner.
  2. Remove the leaves from the bottom but leave one set of leaves at the top of the cutting.
  3. Dip the bottom end in rooting hormone.
  4. Place cutting in a jar of fresh, clean water. Make sure the bottom half of the cutting is covered by water.
  5. Put the jar in a sunny area for about six to eight weeks.
  6. Change the water frequently.
  7. Roots will form in about two months of soaking. The roots will be quite sensitive so keep the cuttings out of the ground for a couple of weeks until the plant's roots are strong enough to head into the soil.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

It's not easy to destroy an elderberry shrub. You will not encounter too many pests or diseases other than typical aphidsmealybugs, elder shoot borers (moths), and scale. Elderberry shrubs may also contract canker, leaf spot, and powdery mildew

FAQ
  • Are elderberries easy to grow?

    Elderberries are hardy and not at all fussy, so they are very easy to grow as long as you plant them in the correct conditions for your goal. It doesn't get any easier than this: If you want flowers and fruit, opt for full sun, the right soil, and give it plenty of water.

  • What other berries are mistaken for elderberries?

    Other berries are often confused with elderberries. A shrub called the devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa) has the same cluster of dark purple berries and looks just like the American elderberry. But elderberry branches do not have any thorns, while the devil's walking stick's branches are riddled with thorns.

  • Can an elderberry shrub be planted in a container?

    An elderberry bush can grow in a container and kept outdoors, but it has to be quite large and wide enough to handle the shallow and spreading roots. The container does not need to be deep, though. For best results, try a pot that's 24 inches wide and 20 inches deep.

    Article Sources
    The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
    1. Elderberry. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Help.

    2. Elderberry. Pet Poison Helpline.