How to Grow Black (Sambucus Nigra) and Red (Sambucus Racemosa) Elderberries

Sambucus (elder or elderberry) is a genus of flowering plants containing between 5 and 30 species of deciduous shrubs, small trees and herbaceous perennial plants.

Elderberry trees are often grown as decorative trees, but more and more for their flowers and fruits.

grow elderberry tree

Most common species are:

- Sambucus Nigra (elder, elderberry, black elder, black elderberry, European elder, European elderberry and European black elderberry),

- Sambucus Racemosa (European red elder, red elder, red elderberry, Red-berried Elderberry).

Black Elderberry - Sambucus Nigra

black-elderberries-1Black elderberry is a shrub or small tree growing to 10 m tall and 6 m wide. It is not very picky plant and it grows in a variety of conditions including both wet and dry, preferably fertile soils, primarily in sunny locations, but will also tolerate some shade.

Black elderberries are native to Europe, North America and Asia with several regional varieties or as a group of several similar subspecies.

Elder fruit is a glossy dark purple to black berry, 5-6 mm in diameter, produced in drooping, sometimes very numerous clusters in late autumn.

All green parts of the elder tree are poisonous, due to cyanogenic glycosides (type of sugar which contains a cyanide group - plant's defensive mechanism). Elderberries can be eaten when fully ripe, but are still mildly poisonous in their unripe state - the berries are safe to eat after cooking and can be used to make jam, jelly, sauces, pies etc.

The flowers are commonly used in infusions, for syrups and similar. Berries and flowers are also used for making elderberry wine and other alcohol drinks. Dried flowers and elderberries are often used for making tea.

Black elderberry is used in traditional medicine due to it's many health benefits and it is used to treat bronchitis, cough, upper respiratory cold infections, fever, arthritis etc.

Red Elderberry - Sambucus Racemosa

red-elderberries-1Red elderberry is a treelike shrub growing 3–6 m tall. It is native to Europe, parts of Asia and North America. It grows in various environments, like woodlands and other habitats, generally prefering moist areas.

Like it's black cousin, it is grown as ornamental plant and for use as food and as remedy in traditional medicine.

Note: fruits are not edible, not even when fully ripe - cooked red elderberries are safe and are used like black elderberries for making jam, jelly, pies, syrups etc.

Also, the fruits of both black and red elderberry are popular with birds, who can significantly decrease the crop - very important if elderberries are grown for fruit production.

Obtaining Elderberry Tree

The easiest method of obtaining elderberry plants is in garden centers (or by ordering them on-line). One of the benefits of garden centers is that one buys certified elderberries ready to be planted on permanent location in the garden. This is important since there are many varieties of elderberries with various properties.

Growing elderberries from seeds is also possible - elderberry seeds require two months of cold to be able to germinate.

Seeds can be started indoors, but these plants are very resilient and probably the best method is to plant the seeds in the flower pots outside and let them overwinter. In the spring, they will start to grow and after one or two seasons in the pot/container, they can be transplanted on permanent location. Or just sow seeds on permanent location right away and let mother Nature do the rest.

Elderberry plants can be obtained by rooting branch cuttings. This is also preferred method when larger number of plants are required.
Cuttings can be rooted in the water, or in the soil.

Rooting in the water - cut the elderberry canes to around 20-25 cm (8-10 inches) in length, put in jars half-filled with water and place near the window. Change water every few days. After 7-8 weeks, cuttings will start to root and start to grow. Roots started in water are very gentle - carefully plant the elderberries on their permanent position, or in larger flower pot/container for a season or two.

Rooting in the soil - cut the elderberry canes to around 20-25 cm (8-10 inches) in length and place in the jar with water for a day. Fill flower pots or suitable containers with good flower pot, place elderberry cuttings and water thoroughly. Keep the soil moist, but also be sure that pot/container has enough drainage holes. After 6-8 weeks on sunny position (windowsill, for example), plants will start to grow - don't transplant them yet. If possible, leave them for one season in the same pots and transplant them on permanent location next year.

The simplest way for rooting plants in the soil is by planting several elderberry cuttings on their permanent location in late winter. During spring, leave the strongest plant and remove or replant other plants.

Planting Elderberry Tree

Elderberry trees are like weeds - they don't require special conditions to grow, flower and have fruits.

However, when given optimum conditions, they will grow stronger and healthier and yield larger crops.

Elderberries prefer rich and moist, but not waterlogged positions, with the soil pH around 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soil types, fertility and pH levels.

Make a hole some 50 cm (20 inches) wide and deep, add some compost and aged manure, mix with the soil and refill the hole, leaving enough room for elderberry plant and root ball. If there is a danger o wind, stick the pole of suitable length and thickness into the soil. Plant the elderberry into the soil, press the soil firmly, tie the plant to the pole and water thoroughly. And that is all.

Caring for Elderberry Trees

Elderberries respond well to fertilizers, however, they have shallow roots and digging in the fertilizers must be done carefully in order to avoid roots damage.

Early in the spring add balanced (for example 10-10-10) fertilizer, around 50-60g for each plant's year (up to 2kg of NPK fertilizer) spread evenly under treetop area. Also, add some compost and/or humus and dig in carefully. During summer, if required, add 25-30g of balanced fertilizer for each plant's year.

Elderberries grow many new canes each year. If elderberries are grown for ornamental reasons, prune them to be visually appealing and form tree or bush.

elderberry flower

When growing elderberries for flowers and fruits, keep on mind that new canes reach full height often in the first season and in the second season, they develop lateral branches. Flowers grow on the tips of the current season's growth, often on the new, first season canes, but second season elderberry canes with good lateral development are the most fruitful. In the third or fourth year, older branches tend to lose vigor and strength and don't develop as many flowers as season or two earlier.

When the plants are dormant, remove all dead, broken, ill, infested, old and weak canes.

Elderberry plants are very resilient plants to pests and diseases. Powdery mildew is rarely a problem, but when there is a danger of affecting the fruits, it must be treated by fungicides.

Cane borers and similar pests occasionally cause damage to the plants and pruning out infested canes and burning them, is often the best course of action for home gardeners. Elderberry plants can cope with few insects, however, if attack is stronger and can affect harvest, organic or artificial insecticides must be used.

Biggest danger to ripe or almost ripe elderberries are birds. They love them and with a good reason. The only way of protecting elderberries and similar fruits from birds are protective nets that prevent birds of eating the berries.


 Elderberries are great addition to any small garden - in most cases, just plant them on permanent location and forget them until time comes to pick flowers and fruits. And they can be quite impressive trees - just imagine them being combined with cherries, blackberries, roses ...

growing elderberry in potsElderberries are very resilient plants, which can be grown in large flower pots and containers. Although they are mostly grown on permanent locations, elderberries in pots and containers grow great smelling flowers and healthy and juicy fruits and can be quite decorative addition to any garden or even larger balcony.

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