Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are one of the few native fruits of North America. They have been used for centuries to make jams, jellies, wines, and to solve a myriad of medical problems. Newer varieties, such as ‘York’ and ‘Nova’, grow on more compact plants and are more disease-resistant than the species. Elderberries are tolerant of partial shade and damp soil, although they prefer full sun and a well-drained, loamy location. Before the summer berries form, large, flat clusters of sweetly scented white flowers appear in spring. They have been described as looking like “Queen Anne’s Lace on steroids”.

Tips On Growing Elderberries

  • PLANTING: Elderberries are self-fruitful, but a larger yield will result when 2 varieties are planted side by side. They are hardy to zone 4. They have shallow roots, so mulch is beneficial. Before planting, amend the soil with compost and add an inch or two each year to fertilize. ‘Nova’ and ‘York’ should be spaced 4’-6’ apart; they will grow 6’-10’ tall.

  • PRUNING: It will take 2 to 3 years before plants begin producing fruit. They tend to sucker freely; one-year-old branches will produce side shoots, or laterals, on which fruit will appear in the following years. In late winter, prune back old stems (3+ years old) to the ground to maintain the plant’s vigor.

  • HARVESTING: In summer, berries appear and turn dark purple when they are ready for harvest. The entire cluster should be pruned off, and stripped from the stems or promptly refrigerated. The small stem attached to each berry needs to be removed before processing; put entire clusters of berries on a flat tray and freeze them for a few hours, and then shake the clusters over a bowl to dislodge them. The fruits are perishable and should be processed soon after picking. Very ripe fruits may be eaten raw, but are generally most palatable when cooked. Note: red elderberries are never edible, and European elderberry varieties must be cooked before eating.

  • WILDLIFE: Elderberries are an excellent choice for wildlife habitats; the blossoms host numerous butterflies in the spring, and many species of birds are attracted to the fruit in the fall. (Netting placed over the plants will keep more of the fruit for your own use!). Once established, the plants are seldom bothered by deer.