How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Elderberry Shrubs

Are you curious about growing your own elderberry shrub? Elderberry is an easy-to-grow and vigorous plant that especially loves moist soils. In this article, gardening enthusiast Liessa Bowen will discuss the proper care and maintenance of these interesting, showy, and wildlife-friendly plants.

Elderberry

Contents

The American black elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is native throughout much of North America. It is a member of the Adoxaceae family and is closely related to several other elderberry species with ranges that include North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. In the wild, elderberry prefers a sunny location with rich, moist soil. It will spread rapidly in ideal conditions, forming dense thickets along streamsides, wetland borders, and moist valleys. 

In the home landscape, elderberry plants are best used as hedges, in naturalized areas, and for erosion control along wetland edges. Due to their vigorous growth and ability to develop numerous root suckers each year, these plants should be grown in a spacious naturalized area where they won’t interfere with any less aggressive garden plants in a more formal garden setting. Elderberry makes an excellent addition to a native plant garden, wildlife garden, or rain garden. 

If you are ready to learn more about these fascinating plants, keep reading for more details on growing an elderberry shrub!

Elderberry Plant Overview

Elderberry
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Family Adoxaceae
Genus Sambucus
Species Canadensis
Native Area Central and eastern North America
USDA Hardiness Zone 4 – 9
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Rich Well-drained
Water Medium to wet
Plant Spacing 6 – 12 feet
Suggested Uses Pollinator, Riparian, Native, and Hedge Gardens. Erosion control
Plant With American Plum, Buttonbush, Silky Dogwood, Swamp Sunflower, Winterberry
Bloom Season Spring Summer
Flower Color White
Attracts Butterflies, Bees, Pollinators, Birds, Mammals
Problems Powdery mildew, Leaf spot, Aphids, Weedy
Resistant To Cold, Heat, Wet soil, Deer
Height 6 – 12 feet

Natural History

A red, skinny branch hanging down from its bush, full of small, black, berry clusters.
American elderberry is native to North America and grows in moist soil conditions.

American elderberry is a widespread plant across North America, from Canada throughout the United States, and continuing into South America. In its natural habitat, it typically inhabits wetlands, wetland edges, moist forest edges, and moist meadows. While it may prefer moist soil conditions, it is adaptable and not limited to wet areas. It can also grow well in average soils with regular moisture and adequate sunlight.

Elderberry is a medium-sized deciduous shrub. It has large, pinnately compound leaves that are glossy and finely serrated around the edges. Large umbels of tiny white flowers bloom in spring and summer. The flowers are showy and fragrant and attract pollinators. Following the flowers, loose clusters of showy, dark, purplish-black berries ripen in late summer into fall, attracting many species of hungry wildlife.

There are a couple of cultivars and similar species, including the very similar-looking black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) native to Europe. Sambucus plants all look somewhat similar but have different places of origin, differences in size, and slightly varying flower and fruit coloration. 

Humans have long used elderberry for a variety of purposes. Elderberry is sometimes used for culinary and medicinal purposes. The berries are poisonous when raw but can be consumed after cooking and are often used in pies, jams, jellies, and preserves. Elderberry has been used to make wine, tea, and mulled drinks. Elderberry fruits can also be used to make dye for fabrics. 

Propagation

A woman's hand holding a cluster of green and black, tiny berries from its branch.
Propagate elderberries from their suckers for the most reliable results.

Elderberry plants can be propagated via seed, cuttings, and division. The easiest method is by division of suckers because these plants spread rapidly and create many opportunities for the division of suckers. However, cuttings from dormant hardwood or young new wood are often viable. Starting plants from seed is generally the least successful and most time-consuming method. 

Seed

A man's hand throwing up a handful of tiny, light brown colored seeds into the wind.
Elderberry seeds must go through a period of cold stratification to germinate.

For a plant that produces abundant fruits and thus abundant seeds, one would think that elderberry should be easy to start from seed. However, encouraging elderberry seeds to germinate can be very difficult unless you provide ideal growing conditions.

Seeds will need to be properly stratified. You must cold-stratify your seeds by placing them in a damp growing medium in the refrigerator for at least 60-90 days. Do not place them in the freezer.

Alternatively, winter sowing techniques can provide the natural cold stratification they would receive in the wild. You may still experience very low germination rates even after proper stratification procedures. 

Root Sucker Division

Close up of a thick, woody branch with its roots still attached to the base, lying on the ground.
Separate root suckers from the base of the plant and replant them.

Elderberry plants spread rapidly. Each root sucker is an opportunity for you to divide your plant, but you will have to separate the root sprout from the parent plant successfully.

Be prepared for some digging. Loosen the soil in a wide enough area to isolate, loosen, and remove a healthy-looking root sucker. You will need to cut the stem between the sucker and the parent plant. Be sure to leave the roots of your targeted sucker as intact as you can.

Then, immediately transplant the separated sucker into a new location or a fresh large pot of soil and water it well. These offshoots should produce additional root tissue and start growing faster than a cutting would.

Cuttings

A white bucket filled with freshly cut bunches of black berries still attached to their bright red branches.
It’s possible to propagate elderberry from dormant hardwood cuttings or new growth.

Elderberry can be propagated from dormant hardwood cuttings from the prior year’s growth. Take cuttings before the early spring growth, ensuring you have 2-4 growth nodes along the stem’s length. These should be healthy cuttings, free from any damage. These cuttings can be rooted immediately but, if desired, can be stored under refrigeration for 4-6 weeks and will still take root. A rooting hormone can spur root development. Cuttings should be placed in sterile, premoistened soil, with the lowest growth node under the soil’s surface.

From softwood cuttings or hardwood cuttings that have produced new growth, you can still propagate new elderberry plants. However, for these younger or newly-sprouted stems, you’ll need to provide constant humidity around the younger tissue to ensure they stay alive to take root. Intermittent misting is recommended for these younger cuttings; otherwise, most methods remain the same as hardwood cuttings. Before planting, remove most of the leaves so the plants aren’t trying to sustain them, leaving only the two lowest leaves on each stem.

It will take several weeks before your plants start to develop new roots, and you will find that not every cutting you take will root successfully. Those that take root and start growing can be kept in pots until you can transplant them outside.

Planting

Close up of a black, plastic bucket with a small green plant and a shovel in it, ready to be transplanted in the ground.
Elderberries will need plenty of room to spread out and ample bright sunlight.

When you have an elderberry plant ready to transplant, the process is relatively easy. First, make sure you are transplanting your plant into a suitable site with ample space, bright sunlight, and moist soil.

The ideal time of year for transplanting elderberry is in the spring after the final risk of frost has subsided. This allows the plant’s roots to become established before hot weather. In warmer climates with little to no frost during the winter months, it’s also possible to transplant these in the fall.

Prepare a hole a bit larger than the root ball of the plant you have to transplant. Carefully transfer your plant out of its pot and into the hole. Then, refill the gaps around the plant with fresh soil and water it well. Keep your new plant well-watered for the first week or two to help it settle into its new home. 

How to Grow Elderberry Shrubs

Close up of a a bright green stem with long, pointy, bright green leaves and a small cluster of black berries in the center of the leaves.
The key to a healthy elderberry plant is lots of space and proper maintenance.

Elderberry plants are easy to grow but require regular maintenance to keep them looking their best. If given their ideal conditions, elderberries will grow readily and rapidly. Even in less-than-ideal conditions, you can still grow these plants. Be sure to leave them plenty of space to expand as they mature!

Sunlight

Provide full sun for your plant for the best fruit development.

Choose a location with full sun to partial shade. Elderberry will perform best in full sun but is quite tolerant of partial-shade conditions. Avoid full-shade locations.

Water

Elderberry grows best in moist soils.

Elderberry prefers moist to wet soil. It will, however, tolerate a range of soil conditions, including dry soil, as long as it receives a weekly deep watering. Aim for 1-2″ of water per week.

This is not a drought-tolerant plant, particularly when it’s setting fruit. Fruit development will require consistent soil moisture during the fruiting process. Mulching around plants can help slow soil moisture evaporation. Many commercial elderberry growers use drip irrigation to ensure the plants have what they need for good fruiting.

Soil

In cupped hands, dark, fertile soil appears rich and textured, cradled gently. The soil's earthy hue contrasts against the skin, suggesting readiness for planting or tending to a garden, embodying the potential for growth and nurture.
Slightly acidic soils are best for growing healthy elderberry shrubs.

Elderberry does best in organically rich, moist soil. It tolerates a soil pH between 5.0 and 8.0 but prefers slightly acidic soils.

Climate and Temperature

While the canes and fruit tolerate cold, this deciduous plant drops its leaves for the winter.

These plants will thrive in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 9. Elderberry plants are quite tolerant of cold, heat, and humidity. However, this species requires consistent moisture and is not tolerant of drought; if growing in a particularly arid environment, provide supplemental watering to sustain the plant.

American elderberry is deciduous and will start dropping leaves in the autumn. Mulching at the base of the plant can provide winter protection for the roots and lower portions of the canes.

Fertilizer

A wooden crate stands open, filled with a dark, rich compost pile ready for use. Nutrient-rich soil teems with decomposed organic matter, fostering growth for plants. Lush weeds encircle the crate, thriving in the nutrient-rich environment.
Enrich the soil with organic compost in spring.

Adding extra fertilizer is unnecessary if you grow elderberries in soil naturally rich in organic matter. If, however, your soil is somewhat poor quality or your plants are showing signs of weakness, go ahead and add some organic compost each spring to give them an added boost of nutrition. 

Maintenance

Prune elderberries regularly to keep them tidy.

Elderberry is a fairly high-maintenance plant. It will require regular pruning to remove unwanted root suckers and dead branches. Do a hard pruning in late winter or early spring to revitalize and improve these plants’ aesthetic look.

Damaged tissue can be removed year-round, especially if it prevents pest or disease spread. In addition, many agricultural sources advise pruning out canes that are three or more years old and tipping new canes at the end of winter before they begin to leaf out. This allows the plant to put its energy into new wood and fresh leaf development.

The other routine maintenance you will need to perform is weed control. Elderberry plants have shallow roots, so weeds should be hand-pulled. Once your elderberry plants mature and form a dense colony, they will naturally block out many weeds, but you should still try to remove any young weeds before they can set seed and spread.

Perennial weeds can become more difficult than annual ones, as they tend to send down deeper taproots and compete with your elderberry for nutrients and moisture. Monitor the area around your plant and remove weeds before they become established.

Garden Design

A large bush with tall, thick, bright red branches that have clusters of dark purple berries on top of each stem and branch. The leaves on the bush are long, pointy and bright green.
The best place to plant elderberry is in an area with lots of moist soil and room to grow.

It’s best not to grow this plant amidst your formal garden plants. Instead, grow elderberry in a somewhat out-of-the-way area. Elderberry plants will naturally spread by vigorous root suckers to form colonies, and they will look best and be easiest to maintain in an area where they can naturalize and grow more freely.

Plant elderberry around wetland edges or low spots in your yard, such as a rain garden area. They love wet soils and make a fabulous plant for natural erosion control. You can also effectively use elderberry plants to help form a hedge.

Grow it as a loose border or background edging plant that can expand freely and not become a nuisance. If you have the space, it would be a great addition to a native plant garden or pollinator-friendly landscape.

Close up of a dark brown branch with small clusters of black and white berries.
Choose the species best suited for your yard and climate.

There are several species of elderberry shrubs beyond the Sambucus canadensis we’ve been discussing today. They perform well in similar habitats, with abundant sunlight and rich, moist soil. Each produces showy flowers and berries and has somewhat weedy tendencies, spreading freely via their abundant root suckers.

In most cases, the care methodology for these species is very similar to Sambucus canadensis, so we included them here for additional options for you to pick from!

Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra

Close up of a bright red branch hanging down from its bush, that has clusters of dark purple and a few red berries on it.
Birds and pollinators are attracted to the fruit and bright red stems of black elderberry.

Black elderberry is native to Europe. It can grow up to 20 feet tall and spreads rapidly by root suckering. This plant produces masses of small black fruits on bright red stems and is great for attracting birds and pollinators. 

‘Black Lace’ Elderberry, Sambucus nigra

Close up of a two, large clusters of tiny, light pink flowers surrounded by pointy, long, dark red, leaves.
This S. nigra variety stands out with pink blooms and dark red leaves.

The ‘Black Lace’ elderberry is a cultivar that looks a bit different. It has showy pink flowers that bloom in the spring and shiny dark purple berries that ripen in the late summer or fall. This cultivar also has beautiful foliage in striking, dark, purplish-red, greatly contrasting with any neighboring plants. 

Dwarf Elderberry, Sambucus ebulus

Close up of a thick, green branch with a cluster of tiny, white flowers with bright pink stamen.
Dwarf elderberry is more compact than other species and can reach 4-6 feet tall.

Dwarf elderberry, also known as European dwarf elder or Danewort, is a variety of elderberry native to Europe. It produces masses of white flowers and purplish-black berries. This variety stays relatively compact, typically growing four to six feet tall.

Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa var. pubens

Close up of thick branches on a large green bush, that have clusters of bright red berries and long, pointy, green leaves on them.
This elderberry species provides food for foraging birds and other forest critters.

The red elderberry is native primarily to northern North America and parts of Europe and Asia. Its showy masses of white flowers bloom in spring, followed by many bright red berries that attract foraging birds and mammals. 

Wildlife Value

A beautiful bird with hues of purple, gray and creamy pink, perched on a dark red branch eating from a cluster of tiny red and green berries.
Elderberry attracts a variety of wildlife throughout the changing seasons.

Elderberry plants are valuable for many species of native wildlife. The flowers bloom in spring and summer, attracting bees, butterflies, and many other pollinators. The fruits ripen in late summer and fall, providing food for fruit-eating birds and some wild mammals. Elderberry is a larval host plant for several species of moths. Since elderberry often forms dense thickets and comprises many densely branching stems, it provides excellent bird shelter and nesting opportunities.

Pests and Diseases

a healthy elderberry tree on a sunny day.
Elderberries are generally healthy plants but monitor for signs of pests and disease.

Elderberry plants are not prone to many pests and diseases, but even healthy plants sometimes encounter a few problems. Some very specialized pests target elderberry plants, and a few diseases may cause you a few headaches.

Eriophyid Mites

eriophyid mite galls on green leaf
Eriophyid mites can cause cupping and crinkling in elderberry foliage.

These tiny mites may be nearly impossible to see as they’re microscopic, but they can cause much damage. As a category, the Eriophyid mites are known as bud, blister, gall, or rust mites. The genus of these mites that most specifically targets elderberries is Phyllocoptes spp., which includes 16 different mite species. These mites cause cupping and crinkling in foliage, fruit and flower damage, and can be a vector for other hazardous plant diseases such as the rose rosette virus.

Eriophyid mites overwinter under bud scales and buds in elderberries. Gathering and burning pruned branches in the winter can reduce their overwintering population. The use of horticultural oils or insecticidal soaps to treat outbreaks is recommended. Some miticides may be useful as well.

Elderberry Longhorn Beetles

The larvae of this beetle bore into elderberry canes, while the adult form feeds on leaves and flowers.

Sometimes referred to as elder borers, Desmocerus palliatus has a two-way impact on elderberry plants. The adults feed on leaves and flowers, while their larval form bores into stems and roots. If you don’t see the adult form first, you can usually tell the larvae are present by small piles of sawdust at the base of older canes.

Prune out infested older canes and burn them, or alternatively dispose of them in a yard waste bin so the larvae cannot remain on the property. Hand-pick the adult beetles and drop them in a bucket of soapy water to drown them.

Spotted Wing Drosophila

A spotted drosophilia fly rests on a green leaf.
The Spotted Wing Drosophila fly can be caught using vinegar traps.

This fruit fly species is common on elderberry in parts of the US, but other fly species may be more common in other regions. Adults will lay their eggs in semi-mature fruit. As the eggs hatch, the larvae destroy the fruit from the inside out.

To prevent this, use row covers or other coverings over plants as they start to set fruit and while they’re still immature, as this should prevent access by the fruit flies to the plant. Monitor for adult fruit flies by placing a vinegar trap nearby to see if you have them in the area.

Other Pests

Look out for the Elderberry sawfly. This sawfly species (Tenthrado grandis) can be a big issue for your elderberries! The larvae eat the young leaf tissue in the mid-to-late spring and can rapidly defoliate your plants. However, unlike other worm-like larvae, it does not respond to Bacillus thuringiensis control methods. Another soil bacteria, marketed as spinosad and usually sold as a spray, can be used to combat the sawfly larvae. Hand-picking larvae as they are discovered will also slow the damage.

Eastern thrips and a few other thrips species may cause damage to flowers. While this doesn’t always result in a lack of fruiting, it’s best to control heavy outbreaks with an insecticidal soap.

Japanese beetles can feed on the plant’s foliage, but it’s not their preferred food. These generally do mostly cosmetic damage to elderberries, but if you have other plants they prefer, they may come for those plants and stay for your elderberry!

Diseases

Septoria Leaf Spot
Diseases like Alternaria leaf spot, blight, and rust will cause discolored spots on elderberry foliage.

Alternaria Leaf Spot

Alternaria leaf spot is a fungal disease most common in warm, wet conditions. Minor leaf spots will rarely be an issue for elderberry plants.

Remove and dispose of any badly infected leaves or branches if you notice brown spots on your plant’s leaves. Consider applying a fungicide such as a liquid copper fungicide to prevent further spread.

Bacterial Leaf Spot & Blight

A bacterial leaf spot caused by some Pseudomonas species can create dark brown, small spots on leaves that develop a whitish pinpoint center. The same species can sometimes cause a blight on flowers that appear as a brown, sunken lesion on the petals but are often hard to identify on elderberry.

As there are no control methods for this type of leaf spotting or blight, the best control method is prevention. Avoid overhead watering, ensure ample airflow around the plant, and generally try to prevent soil splashing onto leaves as this bacteria resides in the soil.

Elderberry Rust

Rust is a common fungal problem in plants, but elderberry rust (Puccinia bolleyana) is one of the uglier forms of it! This causes lesions and fungal sporulation on leaves but also can cause galls on the stems/canes of the plant. When noticed, prune out infected material and sterilize your pruners between cuts; do not compost infected plant parts.

Neem oil is a common preventative for rust and should be applied on a 14-day cycle after removing infected tissue to prevent further spread. Other horticultural or dormant oils may also aid in prevention. Severe infections where most of the plant is impacted may result in the need to remove the plant.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are elderberry plants invasive?

Elderberry plants aren’t truly invasive, but they do have weedy tendencies. If you are growing an elderberry shrub in your yard, do some regular pruning to keep it from spreading too much. Otherwise, it will develop multiple canes and grow into a dense thicket. These thickets can actually look pretty nice if you have the space in a larger naturalized area or if you’re using them as a natural streamside erosion control. They won’t spread to take over your entire yard, however.

How long will it take for elderberry to produce flowers and fruits?

Elderberry is a fast-growing plant. If you are growing an elderberry shrub, you can expect it to start flowering and fruiting in its second year. If you are starting an elderberry from seed, however, it may take longer because they sometimes take a long time to germinate.

Can you eat elderberries?

Elderberries may look tasty, but use extreme caution if you are going to consume them. Do not eat uncooked berries. Uncooked berries are very astringent and are poisonous to humans and many other mammals, including cats, dogs, and livestock. The roots, stems, and leaves are also poisonous and should not be consumed. Elderberries can be harvested when they are fully mature, in late summer through fall. They must be fully cooked before eating, and the seeds should be removed. You can, however, use the fully cooked and prepared elderberry juice for jams and jellies.

Final Thoughts

Elderberry plants are attractive and easy to grow. They may not be the best choice for every garden setting, but they are a fabulous addition to a naturalized wetland area, a shrubby hedge row, or as an erosion control plant. They are vigorous growers and will attract many species of pollinators and other wildlife to your landscape. Elderberry is an attractive plant that produces showy flowers, showy berries, and plenty of foliage to keep your landscape interesting and full of birds and pollinators from spring through fall. 

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