Growing elderberries is surprisingly easy. Elderberries and elderflowers make delicious foods and beverages, plus research shows the berries contain helpful immune-boosting anti-viral compounds. Here’s a complete guide to growing and harvesting your own elderberries and elderflowers!
Elderberry, aka Sambucus, is a small, deciduous tree/shrub that grows in virtually every temperate region on earth. There are dozens of different species of Sambucus around the world. Depending on the species, elderberries may be red, blue, or black/purple.
American black elderberry (Sambucas canadensis) – an excellent species for cultivation
In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to grow one particular species of elderberry: Sambucas canadensis, aka “American black elderberry.” This is an elderberry species native to about half of the United States, can be grown almost anywhere, and produces an excellent fruit that makes it popular for home and farm cultivation alike.
Sambucus canadensis plants feature dark purple-black berries and produce excellent quality fruit. They also have extraordinarily high concentrations of health-boosting compounds such as anthocyanin (which gives the berries their purple/black color).
We grow Sambucus canadensis varieties, and recommend you do as well — especially if you live in the ranges on the map above where the species grows natively. Otherwise, you might also consider species that are native to your growing region.
For easier reading, we’ll simply refer to Sambucus canadensis as “elderberries” for the remainder of this article.
Where does the name elderberry come from?
The name “elderberry” comes from the Anglo Saxon word “æld,” which sounds like “old” but actually translates to “fire.” Centuries ago, the hollow, straight stems of elderberry branches were used to blow air into a hot fireplace, fueling the flame.
Given that the center of a cut and dried elderberry branch has a light styrofoam-like texture that would make an ideal fire-starting material, this feature may also have factored into the plant’s old Anglo Saxon name.
Are elderberries easy to grow?
In our experience, growing elderberry plants organically is surprisingly easy compared to other fruit species we grow. (See: Easiest fruit to grow organically in the southeast US.)
We currently grow four elderberry plants, which is enough to produce all the flowers and fruit we need for a year.
Elderberries are also very low-maintenance plants. In fact, our elderberries are now over a decade old and have had almost zero pest or disease problems. Once established, we’ve only had to irrigate our elderberries during severe summer droughts.
The downside of growing elderberries
The only negative things we can say about growing elderberries are:
- they sometimes produce more fruit than we have time to harvest and process during peak fruiting season in early summer, and
- they produce lots of runners throughout the year that have to be removed unless you want a forest of elderberries.
How to grow elderberries organically: a step-by-step guide
Below is a step-by-step guide to grow elderberries organically. We’ll show you exactly what you need to know to grow huge quantities of elderberries and elderflowers without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
Step 1: Plan for your elderberry plants (number of plants, spacing, etc).
There are some important questions you’ll want to ask and answer before growing elderberries:
1. Are elderberries self-fertile? How many elderberry varieties do you need for best fruit production?
Technically, elderberries are self-pollinating to varying degrees. However, bred varieties don’t perform nearly as well without another variety growing nearby.
Pollination with a different elderberry will increase fruit set and berry size. This means you should grow at least two varieties of elderberries.
2. What’s the ideal spacing for elderberry plants?
You should plant your elderberry trees no more than 50′ apart for best cross-pollination. If you’d like to plant your elderberry trees more densely, space them no closer than 10′ apart.
3. How big do elderberry plants grow?
Mature elderberry plants can get quite large, about 10-12′ tall x 8′ wide. They’re more a large shrub than a tree.
4. Do elderberries need to grow in full sun? Can they tolerate part shade?
For maximum fruit production, plant your elderberries in full-sun spots (6+ hours of direct summer sunlight).
Elderberries can also tolerate part shade, but you’ll get lower yields. Yes, we know this from experience.
5. How long do elderberry plants live?
An elderberry plant can live for up 60 years. This is about 1/10 the lifespan of Keith Richards.
6. What do elderberry plants look like? Are they attractive?
Grown in full sun and plenty of spacing, elderberry plants form a large round shape. Their elegant flower clusters also help make them a nice addition to an edible landscape.
However, elderberry branches are fairly brittle. Since the flower/berry clusters form at the tip of each branch, branches loaded with fruit tend to hang down under the weight, which makes them prone to snapping during heavy winds and storms.
Three of our elderberry plants are located in our front yard and they can be quite stunning during bloom in June. The ends of every branch are covered in clusters of sweet-smelling white flowers that are buzzing with pollinators.
6. What ag zone do elderberries grow in?
Sambucus canadensis elderberries grow from agricultural zones 5-8. Towards the top of this article, you can see a map depicting the zones of various species of elderberries native to North American.
Based on all the information above, make sure you have the space and ideal growing conditions before committing to growing elderberries!
Step 2: Choose elderberry seeds, cuttings, or bare root plants
There are three ways you can source obtain or start elderberries, each with pros and cons:
Option 1. Growing elderberry trees from seed – 3 years until fruit
An individual elderberry is about 1/8 – 1/4″ in diameter. Inside the berry is about 3-5 small seeds.
Each year, mockingbirds unintentionally start dozens of elderberry trees from seed in our yard, when they eat the berries and excrete the seeds. (Coincidentally, this is primarily how elderberries spread in the wild.) Unfortunately for us, the mockingbirds don’t tend to aim for spots in our garden where we want elderberry trees growing, so we have to pull the young plants before they get established.
You can also start new elderberry plants from seeds you find in the mature berries — although we don’t recommend you use the mockingbird method due to sanitation concerns.
To start elderberries from seed, you can either:
- Sow each seed 1/2 – 1/4″ deep in containers BEFORE winter, then let the seeds cold stratify outdoors before germinating in the spring. Transplant them out to their final spots when they’re about 6″ tall.
- Take the lazy approach and sow the seeds directly in the desired spot in your garden before winter to allow for cold stratification.
Since elderberries readily hybridize, starting from seed means you’re unlikely to get plants that are exactly true to the parent. However, you’re still likely to get good fruit from your new variety and if the seeds come from locally grown fruit, they’ll be better adapted to your specific environment.
Growing elderberry plants from seed does means it will take you longer to get a harvest (3 years) than it will with the other two methods below (which will each give you fruit in 2 years).
Option 2. Growing elderberry trees from cuttings – 2 years until fruit
If you know someone who has mature elderberry plants, ask them to give you some of the cuttings when they trim their plants back in late winter. Or if you know how to identify wild elderberry plants, you can source your own cuttings.
Elderberry cuttings are incredibly easy to root, as we found out the hard way years back when The Tyrant had me cut back our dormant elderberries from 12′ tall to about 6′. I took the cuttings and tossed them at the back of our property next to a path.
When spring came, we noticed that every single elderberry branch that was touching the ground had put down roots and was sending up new growth. Since we didn’t want elderberry trees growing in that spot, all of the now-rooted plants had to be pulled out of the ground.
Here’s how to grow elderberry trees from cuttings:
- Collect cuttings in the fall, late winter, or early spring. Hot, dry summer conditions can reduce your elderberry transplanting success.
- Use woody sections of branches (not the green new wood) that are 1/2″ – 1″ in diameter. Cut them into 3-4″ long cuttings. Be sure you’re using living branches, which will have a green streak under the brown bark.
- Next, either: a) stick the cuttings 6″ deep in containers with potting soil, or b) stick them 6″ in the ground in their final location. If you go with option b, be sure to first amend the soil with ~40% compost to native soil. Then top-dress around the plant with 2-3″ of mulch/wood chips.
- Water in the elderberry cutting. Keep the soil moist (but not wet) until you see new growth on the cutting by ensuring that it gets at least 1″ of water per week via rain or irrigation.
Option 3. Growing elderberry trees from bare root or potted plants – 2 years until fruit
If you order elderberries from an online plant nursery, you’ll either get small potted or bare root plants in the fall or spring. These are ready to go in the ground immediately.
Amend the soil and keep their soil damp until the plants are established.
The benefits of growing elderberry trees from bare root or potted elderberry plants are:
- You can order specific high production named varieties from a plant nursery/breeder,
- You can be absolutely certain you’re getting multiple varieties to ensure good fruit production.
These are the reasons why we originally bought our elderberry trees as bare root plants.
Which elderberry varieties are best?
We grow ‘Adams’, ‘Johns’, and ‘Nova’ elderberry varieties. ‘York’ is another popular variety that we have yet to grow.
Frankly, we can’t tell much difference between any of our elderberry varieties in either taste, fruit size, or yield. However, all of the bred varieties we grow produce significantly larger berries and larger yields than the wild elderberry plants we see in our area.
Where to buy elderberry plants:
Here are links to highly rated Amazon nursery sellers where you can purchase each recommended variety of elderberry mentioned above:
*When purchasing, remember to order at least two varieties for ideal pollination and berry production!
Step 3: Maintain and manage your elderberry plants
Elderberry water requirements:
During the first year that your elderberry trees are in the ground, make sure they get 1″ of water per week via irrigation or rain during the warm months when they’re actively growing.
After year 1, your elderberry trees should be well-established and need no (or very little) additional irrigation if you live in a temperate climate region where it rains regularly. We’ve irrigated our mature elderberry trees once: during a “150 year drought” three summers ago when we didn’t get rain for almost 3 months and temps remained in the 90s.
Caveat: if you want to keep your elderberry plants extra happy and maximize yields and fruit size, make sure they get at least 1″ of water per week in the summer. We just take a lazier hands-off approach.
Soil fertility for elderberries:
In the late winter-early spring before they break dormancy, put a 2-3″ layer of compost around your elderberry trees. Don’t till it in, let nature do the work. Then top-dress the compost with a 3″ layer of wood chips/mulch. Repeat these steps yearly.
This practice will give your elderberries all the nutrition they need to remain healthy and productive. If for some reason you notice your elderberry trees looking nutrient-deprived (yellowing leaves, stunted growth), give them a nutrition boost with a good organic fertilizer.
Pruning elderberry trees:
You don’t need to do any pruning during the first two years of an elderberry tree’s life. Frankly, pruning is optional from year 3+, although you’ll probably want to prune as follows:
- Cut out any dead or weaker shoots or branches in the late winter;
- In late winter before the trees break dormancy, cut the branches back to about 6′ tall. This way, you’ll be better able to reach the flowers and fruit in the center of the plants with a ladder in the spring and summer.
Controlling elderberry suckers/runners
Mature elderberries will send off lots of underground suckers from the parent plant. If not maintained, these can end up turning the area into a dense thicket of elderberry trees. In our experience, removing elderberry suckers is the maintenance chore that requires the most time of all when growing elderberry trees.
Cut back to the ground, runners will re-sprout. Ideally, you can dig them out instead.
Elderberry pests and diseases:
We live in one of the most humid, disease-prone and insect-infested regions in the US. Another nice thing about growing elderberries: they have few pest or diseases.
A few issues worthy of mention:
Japanese beetles – Japanese beetles do enjoy eating the leaves, but you can control their populations using organic methods as we’ve detailed elsewhere.
Birds – As mentioned earlier, birds do like elderberries. We have so much fruit (including dozens of pounds of ripe elderberries each day in the summer), that birds don’t make a noticeable dent in our elderberry production. Since birds are also great insect predators, we’re perfectly happy to share our bounty with them.
If birds are putting a sizable dent in your elderberry production, try hanging aluminum pie pans in your elderberry trees. You can also put out an inflatable scarecrow owl – just move it around every couple days so the birds continue to think it’s real.
Elderberry diseases – If you encounter a plant disease on your elderberry trees, first make sure you’re using the compost + mulch method recommended previously. Unhealthy plants are much more prone to pests and diseases.
Next, consider using probiotic foliar sprays. DIY actively aerated compost tea made from worm castings or compost will both help in disease prevention and reduction while giving your plants a quick nutrient boost as well.
Step 4: Harvest your elder flowers and elderberries
Now comes the best part – eating your elderberries! But first…
Is it safe to eat elderberries? Are elderberry plants poisonous?
Do keep in mind that the leaves, twigs, branches, seeds, roots, and unripe (green) berries of elderberries contain sambunigrin, a cyanogenic glycoside which can be toxic to humans and animals.
Ripe elderberries are safe to eat as are the flowers — although you probably don’t want to eat large quantities of the whole raw berries. Elderberries aren’t that great eaten fresh but are downright magical once cooked and lightly sweetened, so cook your elderberries and strain the seeds out before consuming.
*We’ve read that the mad geniuses at SOMA have utilized lacto-fermented green elderberries in their dishes. The lacto-fermentation process apparently degrades the toxins, rendering them safe to eat. We’ve never tested or tried this method, so can’t vouch for it.
Video: how and when to pick elderberries:
When you’re new at something, it’s helpful to watch a video in addition to reading about it. Thus, here’s a quick video showing you exactly when elderberries are ripe and safe to eat:
*video may not display if you have ad blocker software running
How and when do you harvest elderflowers (elderberry flowers)?
One of the best things about growing elderberry trees is getting elderflowers, which are an absolute delicacy.
The first year your elderberry trees produce flowers (year 2 or 3 after you start them), you’ll have a decision to make: should you harvest the flowers?
- The more flowers you harvest, the less berries you’ll get.
- If you harvest all the elderflowers, the plant will put more energy into future growth, but you’ll get no berries that year.
As your elderberry trees mature, you’ll likely have more flowers and fruit than you can handle. Given how brittle elderberry branches are, we focus our flower-harvesting efforts on the outside branches and the weaker branches, e.g. the branches most likely to snap in a storm when they’re fully loaded with berries.
In our ag zone (7B in Greenville, SC), elderflowers can be harvested in late May – early June.
To harvest elderflowers, cut the entire flower stalk at the base. Repeat until you have all the flowers you want.
How to process elderflowers
Processing elderflowers is not a quick or easy process, but it’s worth the aggravation.
Elderflowers do not shake loose from the flower stalk very easily. Instead, they have to be pulled off by hand, or more precisely with the tips of your fingers.
Once you’ve removed the elderflowers from the stalk, you can either dry them for long term storage OR make them immediately into magical concoctions.
Example: check out our decadent sparkling elderflower syrup/cordial recipe:
How do you harvest elderberries (fruit)?
When are elderberries ripe? How do you pick them?
In our ag zone (7B in Greenville, SC), elderberries ripen from early to late July, depending on the variety and how warm the season is.
Wait until your elderberries are fully ripe before picking them. The berries should be dark purple-black in color.
On a single large cluster/umbel of elderberries there may still be a few unripe berries that you can pull off and discard before processing.
Just as with the elderflowers, harvest ripe elderberries by removing the entire umbel from the plant.
Easiest, fastest way to process elderberries
Cutting an elderberry umbel (the umbrella shaped cluster of berries) from the plant is the easy part. Removing all those tiny berries from the umbels is the part that growers typically dread because it’s so time-consuming. (Remember: you don’t want to ingest the stems, so you can’t cook them with the berries.)
It used to take us about 4 hours to remove a gallon of elderberries from the stems/umbels in order to make elderberry syrup. Now it takes us less than 5 minutes.
How? We now use a steam juicer to process our elderberries, which means the stems don’t have to be removed first.
How much fruit can a single elderberry tree produce?
The annual average elderberry yield is about 12-15 pounds per mature plant.
What do raw elderberries taste like?
Raw elderberries taste similar to a watery blackberry. Not great.
However, when you cook elderberries, some amazing chemistry takes place that turns their flavor into a rich blackberry/grape jam-red wine flavor that’s quite delicious. Lightly sweetening cooked elderberries with honey, stevia, sugar, etc also vastly improves their flavor.
How long will raw elderberries keep?
Elderberries are quite delicate so you’ll need to refrigerate or freeze your processed fruit immediately. They’ll last in the fridge for up to one week before they’ll start to go bad. However, frozen elderberries can last for several years.
What can you make with elderberries?
Elderberries can be made into jams, pies, gummies, ferments, adult beverages, and pretty much anything else you can dream of making with berries. Our personal favorite is making elderberry syrup (here’s our elderberry syrup recipe), which we drink throughout the winter to boost our immune system and help avoid getting sick.
Do elderberries have medicinal properties?
Elderberries and elderflowers have been used for centuries for their purported medicinal benefits. Recent studies have started to prove that elderberries do in fact have medicinal benefits that mirror their historical use.
- Elderberries can reduce the severity and duration of flus, colds, and bronchitis.
- Elderberry and elderflower extracts have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-diabetes effects.
Aside from their medicinal benefits, elderberries are also high in vitamins, minerals, and other healthful compounds.
As per Wikipedia: “Raw elderberries are 80% water, 18% carbohydrates, and less than 1% each of protein and fat. In a 100 gram amount, elderberries supply 73 calories and are a rich source of vitamin C, providing 43% of the Daily Value (DV). Elderberries also have moderate contents of vitamin B6 (18% DV) and iron (12% DV), with no other nutrients in significant content.”
Elderberries are also one of the highest antioxidant fruits on earth, even ranking higher than blueberries and cranberries.
As a Purdue University analysis stated:
“Our body uses antioxidants from plant origins to neutralize harmful free radicals and elderberry total antioxidant capacity is one of the highest of all the small fruits. In one study including the black elder (Fig. 2), this species came third for its antioxidant capacity as measured with the FRAP method (Halvorsen et al. 2002). Using the ORAC technique to measure the antioxidant potential of various small fruits, Wu et al. (2004a,b) showed that the American elder had a much higher potential than cranberry and blueberry, two fruits praised for their high antioxidant capacity (Fig. 3). Such a high antioxidant potential in American elderberries has been confirmed in our laboratory.”
Growing elderberry trees organically is relatively easy. Now you know how to do it AND how to harvest elderberries and elderflowers!
We highly recommend these easy-to-grow medicinal plants to home gardeners and diversified farmers alike. Now get growing!
Want to see a quick video summary of this article? Check out our How to grow elderberries Google web story!
Dive deeper into elderberries with these related articles:
- Steam juicer: the fastest, easiest way to process elderberries
- Recipe: elderflower kombucha
- How to make elderberry syrup
- How to make sparkling elderflower cordial
- Raspberry-elderflower-honey sparkling cordial