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How to Grow and Use Elderberry Plants

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The elderberry is a large shrub or small tree (often 8-30 feet tall depending on variety) that produces small berries commonly used for jam, jelly, pies and wine. The fruit of the elderberry is a berry: 1/8- to 1/4-inch in diameter and about 50% of the berry is seed. It is native to the United States and is referred to as a ditch weed in some areas because it grows wild. Some residents curse the elderberry because birds eat the berries then leave large red or purple glops of bird poo all over their car and outdoor furniture.

Elderberry has a long history of culinary and medicinal uses. According to the Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 30, Issue 6, June 2003 issue, excavations of a late Holocene village uncovered tens of thousands of red elderberry seeds. This lead researchers to believe that red elderberry was a diet staple of the native peoples living there.

Most of the elderberry plant is poisonous to humans, many pets, and cyanide sensitive livestock, so you must know which parts to avoid and how to prepare the berries. While leaves and stems are considered poisonous, herbalists have for centuries used dried elderberry leaves in an herbal tea for treating respiratory ailments like bronchitis and asthma. Perhaps drying the leaves then brewing them (along with other components) into tea neutralizes the cyanide producing component. Do not eat or press green leaves into your juice.

Elderberry grows well in low-lying areas, in the back of a garden, and makes a good hedge. Elderberry enjoys well composted material and good drainage. Plan on watering your elderberry plant weekly for its first summer, and pinch off flower heads during its first year to encourage root growth. Then stand back and watch it grow! If your elderberry bush becomes too big for your space, control its size through pruning. Keep the area around it mowed to prevent spreading by root suckers.

Varieties of Elderberry

There are several basic types of elderberry: black, red, blue, American, European, Mexican, and many ornamental varieties. A full discussion of all varieties would be lengthy, so I'll focus on the most popular.

Black Elderberry

(Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis) is the variety best loved for its culinary and medicinal uses. The Black Elderberry in its various forms grows throughout the world and is known by those who cherish it by many different names.

The European Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) is a deciduous shrub that grows between twenty and thirty feet tall and can be pruned and trained into a tree form. It prefers a cool climate and is common in hedgerows in Ireland and England. It is cultivated for commercial use throughout Europe.

The American Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis), is a deciduous shrub that rarely exceeds 13 feet in height.


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The American elderberry grows well throughout the US in zones 3 to 8. It is commonly found growing wild in low-lying areas, along streams and lakes, in ditches, in fence rows, and along road sides. The American elderberry produces new suckers each year and can be cultivated into a dense hedge.

Both varieties produce deep purple/black berries commonly used in wines, extracts, syrups, jelly, jam, and pies. Current research on the American Black Elderberry indicates that it contains more of the anthocyanins and polyphenols that give elderberry its health benefits. The seeds, stems, leaves and roots of the Black Elderberry are all poisonous to humans and some animals. They contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside that causes a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body and will put you in the hospital.

Cooking the berries destroys the glycosides in the seeds, making the berries, with their seeds, safe to eat. As such, the fruit of the Black Elderberry should always be cooked before consumption, unless pressed for juice and the seeds are filtered out. Research indicates that exposing elderberry to heat actually concentrates the healthful polyphenols and anthocyanins.

Red Elderberry


(Sambucus racemona var. racemona) is named for the bright red berries it produces. This elderberry is restricted to cool, moist sites along coastal mountain ranges from California to Washington, and from Newfoundland to Alaska. It is also found in the Appalachian highlands of Georgia and Tennessee. Most people believe the seeds of the red elderberry must be removed before the berry is safe to eat, and that the berries should be cooked as well. The rest of the plant is toxic and should not be eaten.

Blue Elderberry


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(Sambucus mexicana or Sambucus nigra var. caerulea), also called Mexican elderberry, this variety will grow in US Zones 6-10 and is native to California. It prefers canyon habitat in sunny, well-drained locations at elevations of up to 9000 feet. The Blue Elderberry was highly prized by both the Spaniards and Cahuillas as a food staple. A favorite use of the dried blue elderberries was to cook them down into a rich sauce called “Sauco”. Only fully ripe berries should be consumed, and again, cooking the berries destroys the glycosides present in the seeds which causes nausea, cramping, and even a catatonic state. While the other parts of this plant have been used for everything from making baskets to flutes, all are toxic and can not be eaten.

Propagation Through Cuttings

Propagate elderberry plants by taking softwood stem cuttings in late spring through early summer. Early morning hours are preferred; when the air temperature is cool. Softwood cuttings are tender and dry out quickly but have the benefit of rooting quickly.

Things You Will Need:

• Sharp knife
• Gallon size plastic zipper bag
• Damp towel
• Rooting tray
• Rooting medium and potting soil
• Plastic covering for rooting tray: i.e. large plastic bag
• Water
• Rooting hormone
• Misting spray bottle
• 4-inch growing containers

Prepare the Cutting

Cut 6-inch long softwood sections of elderberry stems with a sharp knife. The stem sections should be from new growth that is just beginning to firm and mature. Remove the leaves from the lower 3 inches of the elderberry stems. If the upper stem leaves are large, cut the outer halves off. This will conserve space in the rooting tray and reduce the moisture required by the stem. Place the cuttings in a gallon plastic bag with a damp towel to prevent drying.

Prepare the Rooting Tray

Prepare a rooting tray by filling it with a well-draining rooting medium. Moisten the medium with water so it is damp but not wet. Dip the cut end of the elderberry cutting into rooting hormone. Tap the stem to remove excess hormone. Poke the cutting into the rooting medium to a depth of 3 inches. Arrange the cuttings in the rooting tray so the leaves do not touch each other.

Care For the Cuttings

Mist the cuttings and rooting medium with water and place the tray inside a clear plastic bag to create a humid environment. Set the tray in a warm location with filtered sunlight. Open the plastic bag several times a week to refresh the air. While it's open, check the moisture level of the rooting medium and mist the medium with water if necessary.

Transplant the Cuttings

After four weeks of growth, pull gently on the cuttings to see if there is resistance from root development. When the roots reach 1 inch in length, transplant the elderberry cuttings to individual growing containers filled with a well-draining potting soil. Grow the cuttings indoors or in a protected environment for the first year, then transplant outdoors.

Pruning Elderberries

Elderberry shrubs need an annual pruning, during the dormant season, to maintain an appropriate size and shape for your bed. Without pruning, elderberries develop a coarse, open appearance and form large colonies through root suckers.

Things You Will Need

• Gardening gloves
• Bypass hand pruners
• Bypass loppers

Ragged cuts invite disease. To produce clean cuts, keep pruner blades sharp. Check them often and sharpen when they become dull.

Start by checking for broken, dead or diseased branches and remove these. Shorten healthy stems as necessary to shape and reduce size of shrub.

Cut off one third of the oldest stems at ground level. These older stems have coarse bark and large diameters. Removing some of the old wood rejuvenates your elderberry bush by making room for new growth.

Elderberries are ambitious and multiply by underground root suckers. Prune unwanted suckers to the ground at anytime during the year.

Clean your pruners thoroughly after pruning to prevent the spread of diseases.


The berries of the elderberry plant have been used for thousands of years in making wines, jelly, jam, pies and sauces. In addition, they contain anthocyanins and polyphenols that give healthful benefits when prepared as extracts, syrups, and ointments.

These shrubs are easy to grow in most locations, easy to maintain, and spread readily to become a hedge if you desire.

A little annual maintenance is all that's required to keep your elderberry shrubs doing their best and producing crops of those berries. Being a late summer or fall crop, adding elderberries to your berry patch extends your berry season so you can have something being harvested through the entire growing season.


North Caroline State University: Plant Propagation with Stem Cuttings
Oregon State University: Grow Elderberries
Garden Guides
Norm's Farms