Everything about Growing Elderberries Indoors
It’s surprising that a fruit like elderberries which is so juicy and delicious is not easily available in stores. On the flip side, one can grow their own elderberries so that they can enjoy them anytime.
Even if one doesn’t have their own yard or garden, they need not worry because these berries can be easily grown in pots. What’s more, the plants are so gorgeous that they are a fine addition to one’s home décor. Along with the delicious berries which can be made into jams, pie filling, and wine, one gets a bonus in the form of flowers that smell amazing and are edible too.
In short, there are so many reasons for a plant-lover to have this plant around on their patio, windowsill, or terrace, if not in their garden.
Published: February 3, 2022.
What are Elderberries?
Elderberries were earlier classified as members of Caprifoliaceae or the honeysuckle family, perhaps because of the heavenly smell of flowers.
In 1994, they were reclassified as members of Adoxaceae family, which includes viburnums. They belong to the Sambucus genus.
Elderberries are absolutely multipurpose plants with feathery foliage, bunches of pink or white flowers, and tiny berries in a red, blue, or purple color that can be used for culinary as well as medicinal purposes.
Each berry contains 3 to 5 seeds. It’s packed with antioxidants and vitamin C and has antimicrobial properties. Thus, they promote the health of the immune system. Elderberry medicine is usually taken regularly or acutely in the winter as a preventative measure against fever, flu, cold, congestions, chills, and general malaise.
As mentioned earlier, the plants make a lovely ornamental addition to one’s décor.
The beautiful flowers can be placed in vases to make the room smell delightful, and can even be used to add an amazing flavor to teas and wines. The lovely clusters of flowers attract several beneficial insects.
The berries can be used in baking or made into jams.
The reason behind growing elderberries in containers is that though this plant has shallow roots, it’s a quick grower and spreads fast via suckers. Planting them in containers is a good way to control their spread.
Elderberries should not be eaten raw, as their seed is toxic and can cause stomach upsets. Even the berries themselves are mildly toxic before they fully ripen. Fully ripe Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra berries should look black or dark purple, soft and juicy.
Unripe berries look green or light purple. But even ripe berries should not be eaten raw.
The process of cooking or drying ripe berries will break down any remaining poisonous compounds that could disturb the digestive system.
Sometimes the berries may look purple on the outside but are still under-ripe inside. To make sure they are fully ripe, one should squeeze a berry and check its juice. If the berry is fully ripe, the juice will be dark purple, whereas the juice of unripe berries will be watery and light-colored.
One should try this squeeze test on one or two berries on each bunch that they snip.
Elderberry leaves and stems too are considered toxic, but herbalists, for centuries, have used dried elderberry leaves by brewing them in herbal teas as a treatment of respiratory disorders like asthma and bronchitis.
So, it is considered that perhaps drying and then brewing the leaves into tea deactivates the toxic component. One should not eat or squeeze green leaves into tea or juice.
Red elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) are toxic and should not be eaten. This variety looks very similar to other varieties. But the difference is that it blooms earlier in the spring, by the time when lilacs bloom. It also produces bright red or purple fruit earlier in the summer.
IF ONE PLANTS THESE BERRIES IN CONTAINERS INDOORS, THEY SHOULD KEEP THEM AWAY FROM CHILDREN AND PETS.
Elderberries are hardy to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 9 depending upon the variety. The Mexican or blue elderberry is hardy to zones 6 through 10.
Varieties of Elderberries
For container-growing, four species of elderberry are commonly chosen. These are:
- S. canadensis (North American native)
- S. mexicana or S. nigra var. caerulea (Mexican or blue)
- S. racemosa (Red)
- S. nigra (Black)
Several elderberry varieties are self-fruiting, yet will almost always give higher yields when another cultivar of the same species is grown within 40-50 feet.
On the other hand, other species will not produce fruit at all if another plant isn’t available for cross-pollination.
Following are a few varieties suitable for container growing.
Black Lace: This is a variety of S. nigra and is a real beauty with its dark reddish-purple delicate lacy leaves and light pink flowers. This variety is suitable to zones 4 to 7 and is a great pollinating companion of the variety, Black Beauty.
Since this variety was developed in England in the 1980s, it’s known as the European elderberry. Proven Williams brought it to the US market.
This variety can attain a height of 8 feet if allowed to. However, one can prune it well to keep it compact.
This plant looks especially attractive because of its dark leaves contrasted with light pink flowers during the spring and can become an eye-catching feature of one’s indoor garden.
To fruit in the fall, it needs another variety of the same species with a similar fruiting time planted nearby for cross-pollination.
Black Beauty: First introduced in 2004 in the US from Europe by Proven Winners, Black Beauty is a cultivar of S. nigra. It comes with dark purple, lance-shaped leaves and delicate pink flowers with a very sweet fragrance.
This variety is suitable to zones 4 to 7. It grows in compact form but attains a height of six feet at maturity. To maintain a short, bushy shrub, the grower should prune regularly after the third year.
It produces dark berries in the fall, provided the grower has planted another variety like ‘Black Lace’ nearby.
Dwarf Elderberry: The Dwarf Elderberry, S. ebulus, has many other names including dane weed, danewort, dane blood, and dwarf elder. It originates in southern and central Europe and is established in the eastern USA.
As its name suggests it’s dwarf attaining a height and width of 3 feet. It’s a rapid grower and hardy to Zones 4 through 8. Its flowers arise in the spring and are very attractive with white color and crimson borders.
This is a self-pollinating variety and produces large bunches of reddish-purple fruit that ripens in early fall.
Tapiro: The Mexican species, S. mexicana, is commonly referred to as Tapiro. It originates in western North America, from Oregon through Mexico. Its leaves are green and flowers are yellow or cream-colored. They turn into bunches of blue or light purple berries in the fall.
It’s drought-tolerant, once established. Therefore, it’s ideal for container gardening as it won’t be affected if the grower forgets watering.
However, it will need protection from temperatures below -5-degree F. it’s also perfect for container growing because it attains a height of 4 feet and a width of 4 feet upon maturity. It’s hardy to Zone 6 through 10.
Lemony Lace: Lemony Lace, S. racemosa, is a dwarf, compact variety with bright yellow-green lacy foliage and white flowers that bloom during the spring. Since it grows upright and attains a height of only 3-4 feet at maturity, it’s perfect for smaller spaces.
However, its attractive red berries are not edible but are a good food source during the fall for the local songbirds. This cultivar is hardy to Zones 3 through 7.
How to Grow in Containers?
Choosing the Right Container
One will need a sizeable container to let their elderberries thrive. The container should be at least 24 inches wide and 20 inches deep. Since the plant has shallow roots, the container should have a larger width than depth.
A wide pot will allow the roots to develop and spread out so as to provide better support and feed the plant well. Spread roots will provide the plant with a stable base and will protect it from falling over.
Most varieties of this plant have a free-form, bushy growth habit, and usually grow as wide as they are tall.
The grower should make sure that the pot they choose doesn’t taper towards the base. The container should be heavy-duty and wide-based as the plant tends to get top-heavy, especially if it’s not pruned well.
If the container is not big enough, the elderberry grown in it can tip over, especially if the location is windy.
The grower should check the height the plant would attain at maturity and spread of the variety they plan to plant, and then choose the size of the planter accordingly.
However, in any case, the bigger the planter, the better. The planter should also be heavy-duty, such as the one made from rock or cement, so as to prevent tipping.
Usually, soil dries out soon in planters, but a large container can hold more moisture without making the roots stand in water (which can lead to root rot). Elderberry plants love moist soil with good drainage. Also, large pots are not recommended for plants having a small root system.
However, elderberry plants tend to spread out and can’t perform well in small containers. Although their roots are shallow, they can spread many feet.
Even in a large planter, the plant won’t perhaps grow as large as it would if it were grown in the ground. This can also reduce one’s harvest.
A mature, full-grown elderberry plant can yield up to 15 pounds of berries each season. However, one can get less than that from a potted elderberry plant.
Since one has to choose a large and heavy-duty container, obviously it’s going to be heavy and quite difficult to move around. Hence, it’s a smart idea to place it on a wheeled base.
Preparing the Container
The very first thing one has to do is to make sure the container has plenty of drainage holes and if it hasn’t any, make some.
Elderberry has to be planted in well-draining soil since standing water can cause root rot. Ideally, a 24-inch-wide container should have at least five holes.
It’s recommended to avoid placing rocks or other materials on the drainage holes. The soil should retain a good quantity of water, and the holes in the bottom will drain excess water.
According to botanists and horticulturists, rocks or other materials placed on the bottom will in fact obstruct the flow of water through the planter, potentially resulting in the soil becoming waterlogged.
As an alternative, one can even mix 70% perlite and 30% peat moss, and add this mixture to their potting soil. A good ratio is 1 part of this mixture to 3 parts of potting soil.
It’s not recommended to take soil directly from one’s garden as it can contain diseases and weed seeds. However, if one has to do this, at least they should conduct a soil test, and amend the soil with well-rotted manure or compost as required. They should also add the above-given perlite and peat moss mixture or some sand to promote good drainage.
Choosing the Right Location
The key to making one’s potted elderberry plants happy is to choose the right location.
The native American species Sambucus canadensis does well in shade or partial shade, with around four hours of sun daily.
Most other elderberry species love a fully or partially sunny location and will bear more fruit in full sun. They need six hours or more of direct sun daily.
When choosing an ideal spot, one should remember that ripe elderberries are extremely pigmented and can be used to dye clothes. This means that they may stain one’s walkways and patio flagstones. One has to either harvest the berries as soon as they ripen or be careful while picking them.
If one plants elderberries in multiple containers, they should space them at least three feet apart and also away from fences and walls, to allow good air circulation and help prevent diseases.
Most, though not all, elderberry varieties are self-pollinating. However, one can plant two together within a distance of fifty feet from each other. This will improve the harvest.
One should also place their plants in a spot where they’re safe from wind to prevent the container from tipping over. This is especially important in case if a larger variety that may become top-heavy is planted.
One can plant elderberries from seed but it’s a time-consuming process. Instead, one can buy bare-root plants or seedlings from a nursery or garden center.
One can even transplant suckers from existing plants grown by their friends or propagate stem cuttings.
Transplanting Nursery Seedlings
For transplanting nursery seedlings, one has to dig a hole in the soil in the planter of the same depth as it’s currently in the pot. First, they should water the plant and then place it in the hole. Then they should tamp the soil gently and then water it well again.
Planting from Cuttings
While it can be expensive to buy seedlings from a nursery, there are still inexpensive and easy ways to grow elderberries, one of which is growing from cuttings.
If one is taking their own cuttings, they should only do that if the plant is a few years old so as to collect hardwood cuttings. In that case, they can take cuttings from their friends’ mature plants or can order cuttings online.
Time and Size of the Cutting
If they take cuttings on their own, they should do it in the winter when the plants are dormant. They should make a sloped cut on the rooting end and a flat cut on the ‘leafing’ end of the cutting so they can plant them in the right direction. The cuttings should be around 6 to 8 inches long and have a minimum of 2 pairs of nodes.
Rehydrating the Cuttings and Using Rooting Hormone
Whether one gets cuttings from existing plants or buys them from an online shop, they should start by soaking them in cool to cold water (well water or distilled water) with the angled side down for 24 hours to rehydrate them thoroughly.
The cuttings soaking in water should be placed in a cool spot away from direct sun.
Once the cuttings are soaked in water and the root end will be wet, it’s perfect for dipping into a rooting hormone. The grower should dry them by placing them on a paper towel for a few minutes.
Apart from the commercial rooting hormone powders, one can even use willow water for the same purpose. Willows are full of natural rooting hormones. One can soak a few willow twigs in water and the hormone will be extracted in the water which one can use for other plants. Even willow bark powder can be used as a natural alternative. Another natural rooting stimulant is honey.
If rooting hormone powder is used, the cuttings should be lightly tapped to remove excess powder. Rooting hormone will help deter bacteria and fungus from infecting the cuttings and speed the uprooting process.
Whichever approach one takes, they should dip the slant cut root side of the cutting into the rooting hormone, covering the cutting around an inch up the sides.
The grower should prepare a tray or pots with moistened potting soil and should make a hole with their finger or a pencil in the potting soil so the rooting hormone powder doesn’t get knocked off during planting. Hence, the cutting should not be just slid in the soil. After placing the cutting in the hole, the grower should push the soil back around the cutting and tamp down.
A 5” to 6” inch pot can accommodate 3-4 cuttings. They have to be transplanted later in the spring in their own pots. Transplanting multiple cuttings in one pot will save space in the starting when not all the cuttings will survive.
It’s important to keep the planted cuttings cool, but not cold, to promote root formation. 40-degree F is an ideal temperature. There should be no direct sunlight and wind. Direct sun and warm temperature will promote quick growth of the top but will be bad for root growth.
If the grower’s area receives mild winters, a sheltered outdoor location can also work well.
The grower should keep the soil moist, but not soggy, and wait. They should check the cuttings weekly to make sure the soil is moist or if water is required. The pots should be kept tented (covered with clear plastic) till the cuttings root well. After 8 to 10 weeks, good roots and new shoots should develop. At this point, the cuttings (now tiny plants) can be potted individually.
Growing Elderberries in Containers from Seeds
Growing elderberries indoors from seeds is not a preferable option as it’s very time-consuming and doesn’t guarantee a consistent yield.
A plant grown from seed may not have the characteristics of its parent plant and it may or may not fruit or its berries may ripen at different times.
If one wants the same characteristics in their elderberry plants as that of the parent plant, they should grow the plants from cuttings of a known cultivar that has properties they desire such as even ripening, sweetness, large clusters, or resistance to pests and diseases.
If one thinks of collecting these seeds and straightaway sowing them in the soil to get seedlings, it’s not possible.
Elderberry seeds come with a hard, thick seed coat and something called ‘natural dormancy’ as per botanists. This means that the seeds must be given optimal conditions to break the coat and make them wake up from their deep sleep.
This is called stratification and elderberry seeds need it twice. Elderberry seeds stratification is not difficult but requires a length of time i.e., up to 7 months.
The stratification should simulate nature’s cycle. One should first expose seeds to warmth, like the usual conditions occurring indoors, for many months, then they should keep them in cold temperatures for 3 more months.
If one has a lot of patience and wants to grow elderberries in containers from seeds, here’s what they should do:
They should collect elderberry seeds in late summer or early fall. They should wait till the berries become deep purple to black, soft, and plump. After picking them, the grower should store them in a brown paper bag.
To take seeds out from these berries, the grower should put them in water and then crush them between fingers. The pulp will be rubbed out and seeds will come out. The seeds will float on the water which the grower should scoop out with a strainer.
The grower should take sulfuric acid in a small bucket up to 3 inches of level. They should wear eye protection and a pair of rubber hand gloves. Then they should dump the seeds out of the strainer into the acid. They should move the bucket slowly back and forth or in a circular movement, so the acid will swirl on top of the seeds. They should let the seeds soak for 15-30 minutes so the acid will scarify or soften their outer covering.
Then the grower should mix 1 cup each of coarse sand, peat moss, and vermiculite together in another small bucket and add water slowly to it. They should make sure the media becomes evenly moist, but not soggy.
Now they should pour 1 ½ cup of this mixture into a plastic zipper bag. Then they should scoop out seeds from the acid with a slotted long-handled spoon. They should hold the spoon over the bucket for a while to let the excess acid drain.
Now they should pour the seeds in the mixture inside the zipper bag and then add the remaining 1 ½ cup mixture on top of the seeds to cover them fully. They should now seal the bag and place it in the fridge constantly with a temperature of 40-degree F, and should leave it there for 90 days.
They should now prepare a seedling tray filling it with potting soil. The top 1 inch of space should be left. They should now tamp the soil lightly. They should add more soil if required to maintain the right level.
Now they should fill the tray with water and let the excess water drain through the drainage holes at the bottom. Then again, they should feel the tray with water to make sure the soil is evenly moist.
Now they should take the bag containing seeds out from the fridge and pour its contents into a bowl. They should filter out seeds from the media and sow them in the tray.
Seeds should be spaced 2 inches apart from each other and should be covered by a ¼ inch layer of potting soil. The top layer should then be misted with water to moisten the newly added soil.
Then they should cover the tray with clear plastic.
The grower should select a room where the temperature constantly ranges between 72- and 80-degree F. they should place a heating mat on a flat surface that is located far from heating or cooling vents, but receives bright, indirect sunlight. The mat’s temperature should be set to 75-degree F and the seeded tray should be placed on the mat.
The grower should keep checking the tray every 3-4 days to see if there are any signs of moisture loss. If the top layer is seen to dry, they should remove the plastic cover and mist the soil surface. But they should take care not to make the soil soggy.
They can expect signs of germination after 4 to 6 months from the sowing date. If most of the seeds have sprouted, they should remove the cover, take the tray off the heating mat and place it in direct sunlight. They should water the seedlings when the top 1-inch soil layer dries out.
They should apply a water-soluble 10-10-10 NPK fertilizer every 10 to 14 days. They should mix ½ teaspoon fertilizer in 1-gallon water and apply it in place of a watering.
When the seedlings become 3 to 5 inches tall, they should be transplanted into individual 6-inch pots. The pots should be filled three-quarters full of potting soil.
While transplanting, they should carefully dig out a seedling from the tray with a trowel and place it in the center of the pot with its roots spread outward.
They should add soil to the planter and tamp it lightly around the roots
They should not overfill the planter or plant the seedling deeper than it was earlier.
They should then fill the pot once or twice with water to make sure the soil is moistened completely.
Now they should place the pot in direct sunlight in a room with 70–75-degree F temperature.
How to Take Care of Pot-grown Elderberries?
Probably the biggest challenge in growing elderberries on one’s own and especially in containers is the great need for moisture of the plants.
The soil in planters dries out much faster than garden soil. It’s a good idea to use drip irrigation to keep the plants happy. Adding an inch or two of mulch is also a good idea. This can be leaves, grass clippings, compost or newspaper. It will help retain moisture.
As soon as the plants start flowering in the spring until they become berries and either are harvested or eaten by birds or fallen to the ground, the grower should give the plants at least an inch of water each week. One can use a rain gauge to determine how much water their plants are getting.
If the grower notices that the top inch of soil becomes dry between waterings, they should increase the amount or frequency of watering. Elderberries go dormant in winter and will need only infrequent watering, just to ensure the soil doesn’t dry out totally.
An aggressive grower like elderberries when grown in containers need pruning to maintain a compact, bushy shape and to prevent them from outgrowing their containers. Pruning is also necessary because, without pruning, the shrub won’t fruit as vigorously as it used to.
The grower should prune the plant in late winter or early spring before new growth starts, in the third year of growth.
They should cut any canes that touch the ground and also those which are damaged or broken. Any canes that are crossing each other should also be removed to improve air flow. Canes at the base close to the soil level should also be removed.
The grower should remove any third-year canes too, because they don’t produce as finely as younger growths. Second-year canes produce the highest and production reduces after that. Identifying the year of canes is easy – third-year canes will look larger than surrounding canes and will have fewer leaves.
The grower should take care to leave at least five canes on each plant to allow the plant to continue growing.
Any suckers popping out next to the main plant should be plucked out or else, there would be several plants trying to compete for water and nutrients in one container.
The grower should fertilize the plants from the second year onward, in early spring, with a balanced 10-10-10 (NPK) fertilizer. They should follow the label instructions.
For plants grown in containers, regular fertilization is essential because their roots cannot spread beyond the container walls for nutrients, and regular watering will wash them out from the soil.
Elderberries are nitrogen-hungry plants. Hence the grower should plan to supplement the soil within a few years of growing in containers.
But if they notice an excessive growth of new leaves, they should reduce the amount of nitrogen to half. Nitrogen will help the growth of leaves, but not of flowers or fruits.
If growth seems sluggish with only a few new canes popping up in the spring, growers can increase nitrogen by half. In that case, they can choose a fertilizer that has a higher nitrogen ratio. They can also add composted manure in the soil.
Adding a two-inch layer of mulch to the top soil layer is necessary in winter to protect the roots from freezing temperatures. The grower should also wrap the container in burlap or blankets. The elderberry varieties that grow best in
Zones 3 through 8 experience winter freezing.
Pests and Diseases
Fortunately, most pests keep away from elderberry plants. However, the grower should be vigilant for the following ones.
Thrips are black or brown insects with black, white, or red markings and small wings. They prick the plant and suck the sap from petals and fruits. Due to this, growth is stunted, yield reduces, and leaves curl and get discolored. Thrips can be controlled by an insecticidal soap.
Elder Shoot Borer
These are the larvae of Achatodes zeae, a red-brown moth, that tunnels into new shoots due to which tips of canes wilt. The moth lays eggs in late summer which hatch the next spring. A sign of identification is that the green shoots of the plant start wilting. A solution to this problem is to prune canes back until they’re no longer hollow. The infected material should then be disposed of or burned.
If the grower uses high-quality potting soil, they’re very likely to avoid soil-borne diseases. Diseases often occur in plants that are not regularly pruned enough to allow good air circulation.
Powdery mildew affects a large number of plants including elderberries. It occurs in the form of grayish-white powdery mold on leaves, twigs, and buds. It occurs usually in humid conditions and can stunt growth.
It can be avoided by maintaining good airflow by pruning, avoiding falling of water on leaves during irrigation, and removing any dirt that falls into the planter. Spraying a targeted fungicide on plants can also help.
Leaf spot occurs with black or brown dots on the undersides of leaves. They’re caused by various bacteria and fungi, including Phyllosticta sambuci and Colletotrichum spp., Septoria sambucina.
If left unattended, the diseases can cause leaves to turn yellow and shed. These spots can occur even on fruits and form cracks. Although it won’t typically kill the plant, it can weaken it and reduce the production of flowers and fruits.
A copper- or sulfur-based fungicide can be effective to slow down the spread of the disease but won’t cure it.
This disease is caused by Corticium stevensii, a fungus. It causes leaves to wilt and turn brown, especially on the plant’s parts located in full shade. It also causes the formation of a white fiber near-dead parts.
To deal with thread blight, the grower should regularly prune the plants and ensure plenty of airflow by keeping them away from other plants or walls by at least 3 feet. They can even treat it with a fungicide.
While elderberries love moist soil, they don’t love waterlogging at all. If their roots have to stand in water, they suffer from root rot. This happens especially with container-grown plants. Therefore, it’s essential to provide good drainage, in the form of several drainage holes in the container.
A fungus-like organism, Phytophthora rubi, causes root rot. It thrives in waterlogged soils. Root rot turns leaves red or yellow, and develops brown or black lesions on roots. Once the plant suffers from root rot, it’s toast. The grower has to pull it and restart.
The grower should often check if drainage is good by checking if excess water drains out from the bottom. If it doesn’t, the soil might have become compacted. In that case, they should remove the plant and free up the drainage holes.
Then they should refill the pot with new, well-draining potting soil and replant.
To pick the elderberries, the grower should cut entire clusters using pruning shears, just below their base. They should then collect the bunches in a bucket, plastic bag, or basket.
Then the berries should be removed from the stems. Stems and leaves are poisonous and therefore should not be consumed.
Here’s a nice idea! Instead of trying to detach each berry from its stem individually, which is certainly a tedious task, one can place the entire bunches in the freezer for a few hours. Once they are frozen, one can just shake the berries off the branches into bags or bowls.
Elderberries have to be dried, cooked, or processed in some way so as to make them safe for consumption. As mentioned earlier, the berries and many other parts of the plant are slightly toxic if eaten raw. It’s not toxic to the level of killing someone if they eat a few raw berries, but they cause stomach upsets and nausea. So, it’s not a good idea to take a risk.
Fortunately, these berries can be preserved in many ways. They can be turned into medicinal syrups, cough drops, gummies, and glycerin- or alcohol-based tinctures. They can even be preserved as jellies and jams or can be baked into pies.
Also, one can dry them in the sun, in an oven, or with an electric dehydrator. If one is going to process them later, they should keep the berries in the freezer. If one has pre-frozen clusters to make them easy for removing from their stems, they should first wash the removed berries and immediately freeze them again or else the berries will turn into a huge, messy mass.
Growing elderberries indoors in containers has so many benefits to the grower and hence the process becomes enjoyable. Whether it’s the foliage or flowers or fruits, each part of this plant looks beautiful and ultimately the grower gets delicious and healthy berries (provided due precautions are taken while eating them).