Growing Elderberries

Elderberries are often grown for their striking foliage and bright berries, but look before you eat—many elderberry varieties are poisonous.
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'Black Lace' Elderberry

'Black Lace' Elderberry

Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ is a deciduous elderberry for part to full sun that bears soft pink flower clusters in the spring and black-red berries in fall. The dark, purple-black foliage is finely cut, like a Japanese maple’s.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Proven Winners

Image courtesy of Proven Winners

Elderberries are considered minor fruits, in comparison to blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. Although raw blue and purple elderberries are bitter and unpleasant tasting if eaten raw, and contain alkaloids that may cause nausea, they can be cooked or processed to make jams, jellies, wine, pies, flavored vinegars and teas.

Editor's Note: Never eat or use the fruit from red elderberries, Sambucus racemosa, which are poisonous. Even the stems, leaves, bark and roots of these plants contain cyanide toxins.  Be extremely cautious about the kind of elderberries you consume or touch. Visit the USDA Plant Database for more information.

Many gardeners simply use elderberries as ornamentals. These members of the honeysuckle family are easy to grow as attractive shrubs or small trees. Their blooms appear from early to mid-summer, and develop into reddish-purple to black berries that often attract hungry birds. (If you want the berries for yourself, use netting to protect your plants.)

Elderberries prefer moist, well-drained soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, but these adaptable plants can perform in many types of soils. Give them full to part sun. Add good organic matter to the hole when you plant, and feed with 10-10-10 fertilize or compost each year in early spring.

Because their roots grow close to the soil’s surface, elderberries should be watered deeply and thoroughly the first year after planting. Mulch to control weeds, or pull them by hand, to avoid injuring or disturbing the shallow roots.

Elderberries are seldom bothered by pests or diseases, although powdery mildew may be a problem in wet weather. It’s not usually serious enough to kill the plants, but it can be treated with a fungicide, or you can simply remove and destroy the affected leaves in autumn. If cane borers infest old canes, prune out and destroy those canes.

Each year, elderberries sprout new canes that develop lateral branches. Second-year canes with lateral branches are usually the most fruitful. After three or four years, the old canes become less productive and can be pruned away. Wait until the plants are dormant in winter before pruning.

If you’ve noticed elderberries growing along riverbanks and roadsides, or in moist woodlands and marshes, you’ve probably seen the American elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, a common, wild species native to the U.S. Another common type, the European elderberry, Sambucus nigra, is native to Europe and Asia; it’s usually hardy in zones 5 to 7.

‘Black Lace’ is a deciduous elderberry for part to full sun that bears soft pink flower clusters in the spring and black-red berries in fall. The dark, purple-black foliage is finely cut, like a Japanese maple’s.

A new introduction, ‘Black Beauty’ opens large pink flowers in mid-summer and grows up to 12 feet high. Both ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Black Beauty’ are deciduous plants that are hardy from zones 4a to 7b. Use them in containers, as specimens, or as hedges and screens. Pet owners, take note: the leaves, roots, bark and buds of both varieties can be toxic. 

If you want to grow elderberries for their fruits, plant at least two different varieties that are known to bear safe, edible berries. Keep the plants no more than 60 feet apart. Berries may take 2 to 3 years to appear. Look for varieties such as ‘John’s’, ‘Adams’, ‘Nova’ or ‘York’, which are all good producers. Berries are ready to harvest from August to September, depending on the cultivar you’re growing. Keep the fruits refrigerated until you’re ready to use them, and again, remember the blue and purple berries must be cooked to bring out a sweet flavor. Red elderberries are toxic.