Plant Profile: Elderberry

A mature elderberry bush can provide you with ample sprays of elderflowers for making delicately flavored treats and syrup as well as a bountiful harvest of berries for baking and tea. The elder bush’s plentiful flowers provide two other reasons to welcome this plant to your landscape: It’s absolutely stunning in bloom in early summer, and pollinators adore the fragrant blossoms.

Elder bushes produce two crops renowned for their health benefits. Studies show the berries can combat cold and flu viruses, backing up centuries of its use in folk medicine. Elderberries are also rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, prompting scientists worldwide to study their effects on cardiovascular and brain health, metabolism and cancer prevention. In addition, elderflowers are prized by herbalists for soothing skin and fevers, and the syrup made from them tastes utterly divine.

The elderberry syrup you’ve seen on store shelves mainly derives from European varieties of Sambucus nigra, which generally don’t grow well in North America. More than two decades ago, horticultural researchers at the University of Missouri launched the Elderberry Improvement Project to study the native variety, Sambucus canadensis, which grows wild across much of the continent. Research reveals that native berries have similar nutrient profiles to their European cousins, while the whole plant appears to be lower in cyanogenic glycosides, chemicals that can cause gastric upset.

Northern gardeners can grow this cold-hardy native plant easily. Notoriously tough plants that manage in poorer soils, some cultivars of elder bush are hardy to USDA Zone 3. They tolerate partial shade, wet soil and juglones, making elder bushes popular understory plants in permaculture gardens. Permaculture author Toby Hemenway also recommends elder bush as a “soil fumigant and pest repellent.” The berries can be used for cloth dyes and the wood for crafts. Quite a multipurpose plant!

With so many reasons to grow elder bushes—health, pollinators and landscape benefits—why wouldn’t you?

elderberry fruitFavorite Cultivars

Now that you’re sold on adding elderberry bushes to your landscape, which to choose? Most local nurseries carry a few kinds of elderberry bushes, though rarely the cultivars researchers have found most productive or flavorful. Many less common varieties of elder bushes are worth pursuing if you want the biggest, tastiest yields of elderberries and elderflowers in your garden.

I spent much of 2019 researching elderberries and elderflowers for my book, Everything Elderberry (Skyhorse Press, 2020), which explores their historical and medicinal uses as well as how to forage, grow and cook with these tasty flowers and fruits. One of the most exciting parts of my research was talking to growers and researchers around the country about their work with these fascinating plants.

Many nurseries carry ‘York’, which one grower singled out as the most flavorful and juicy of the types he grew. ‘Adams’ is another commonly available option. You may also find ornamental elderberry plants, such as the dark purple-leaved Black Lace®. While ornamental cultivars will produce flowers and berries, they likely won’t yield as much as those known for their larger, more flavorful fruit or superabundance of flowers. Note that the green-leaved varieties are typically Sambucus racemosa and are not recommended for consumption.

Less common cultivars can be found online from the handful of growers who ship cuttings or bare-root plants in late winter and early spring. The most economical way to get your elder bushes is to order cuttings, which you need to root for eight to 10 weeks before planting. Some larger sellers of fruit trees and shrubs carry more common varieties in potted form as well.

elderberry bush flowerPlanting Tips

Because elder bushes have shallow root systems, growers don’t recommend spreading the root ball when planting. Encouraging plants to develop roots reaching further into the soil can help plants weather dry conditions.

Elder bushes produce best in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. They prefer slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5 to –6.5) that is high in organic matter but they can handle poorer soils. While they do best in well-drained soil, they tolerate soil with less-than-ideal drainage. They don’t like having wet feet, though, so avoid planting where water will pool.

Elderberry bush grower Terry Durham of Missouri-based River Hills Harvest recommends using compost for about half of the backfill at planting time. He finds that elder bushes benefit greatly from increased mycorrhizal activity. He recommends an annual application of compost in the spring and a low-nitrogen, high phosphorus and potassium fertilizer after berry harvest. Cover surrounding soil with a hardwood mulch to preserve moisture, suppress weeds and encourage microbial activity.

In the first growing season, harvest all flowers to allow young plants to put their energy into developing root systems rather than berry production. Elderflowers can be made into delicious teas, cordials and liqueurs. In subsequent years, don’t overharvest flowers if you want berries as well. Permaculture designer Pete Widin, Artisan Environments in Stillwater, notes that harvesting the bottom 2 feet of flowers improves air circulation and discourages the spotted wing drosophila fruit fly. He also recommends pruning determinate varieties like ‘Ranch’ and ‘Bob Gordon’ down to the ground each winter after their third season.

Experts recommend growing more than one variety for increased yields and diversity. Varieties vary in bloom time, extending the season for pollinators as well as your own harvest and enjoyment.

A final tip: Birds absolutely love elderberries, so if you want some for yourself, consider placing netting over part of your crop.

 

Cultivars to Consider

Some elderberry plants get large, so if you’re choosing plants for a small yard, look for more compact cultivars. Elder bush makes an excellent hedgerow, if you have space and want to create an edible border.

Bob Gordon’—Prized for its large, sweet berries, ‘Bob Gordon’ also has a reputation as an especially productive plant, with berry clusters weighing as much as 2 pounds. 6 to 8 feet tall. Zones 4–8.

Ranch’—Known for its adaptability, ‘Ranch’ is relatively compact, growing 5 to 6 feet tall. Zones 3–8.

Wyldewood’—‘Wyldewood’ has enormous flower heads and produces heavily later in the season. 5 to 8 feet tall and wide. Extremely cold hardy. Zones 3–8.

Marge’—Though trials of most European elder bushes (ssp. nigra) in North America have not gone well, ‘Marge’ is an exception, outperforming canadensis varieties in a study plot at the University of Missouri. ‘Marge’ showed better disease resistance and produced up to three times as much fruit as comparison plants. Up to 12 feet tall. Zones 3–10.

Oklahoma John’—‘Oklahoma John’s’ large berries and exceptional production of flowers and fruit make it worth ordering from Brent Madding of 360 Farms, who found it growing wild near his farm in Oklahoma. 5 to 8 feet tall. Zones 3-8.

York’—Widely available, ‘York’ has large berries and produces well. 6 feet tall. Zones 3–8.

Adams’—Another easy-to-find option, ‘Adams’ has sweeter berries than many cultivars. 6 to 10 feet tall. Zones 3–9.

Black Lace®—An attractive choice that should still yield some flowers and fruit. 6 to 8 feet tall. Zones 4-7.

This article by Susannah Shmurak originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Northern Gardener.

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