The American elderberry, also known as the black elderberry, is a deciduous shrub that produces flowers and berries that can be used in myriad medicinal and culinary applications when fully ripened (before then, they can be toxic).
Common varieties include the following:
- Aurea cultivar (yellow leaves, red berries)
- Variegata (multicolored or patterned foliage)
- Laciniata (lacey leaves)
- Adams No. 1, Adams No. 2, York, and Johns (produce large berries; this is the variety most often used in cooking)
American elderberry leaves are green and lush. The oblong leaves have sharply serrated edges.
Five to seven leaves will grow on each stem, the veins of which fade as they reach the end of the leaf.
The American elderberry produces creamy white, pleasantly fragrant flowers in clusters of up to 10 inches in diameter. Their petals–five per flower–have rounded tips.
Three to five white tubes sprout from the center of most flowers, ending in pale yellow tips. They bloom in early summer.
Between six and eight weeks, elderberry flowers develop into dark purple or nearly black berries, usually in late July or throughout August.
The tip of each berry has a bump where it was formed from the flower. They grow in flat clusters up to 10 inches in diameter.
American elderberry shrubs have short trunks covered in smooth grayish-brown bark. The bark is bumpy and furrowed, though older bark may look scaly. Its yellowish twigs are hairless with scattered pores (called lenticels); their insides are soft and white.
Elderberries prevent the spread of viruses and shorten their lifespan. Accordingly, they have been used for centuries in syrups and teas for their antiviral properties.
You may even have seen some cold and flu remedies in the natural foods section of your grocery store, using some variation of the elderberry’s scientific name, Sambucus canadensis.
Remember: raw, unripe elderberries and their leaves are toxic.
American elderberry flowers can be dried and steeped into tea or infused into spirits to make elderberry liquor.
Use the flowers to make breakfast extra special. Add them to your pancake batter. Once cooked, your pancakes will show tiny little flowers on their surface.
The tart berries can be juiced and used in jams, jellies, and wine.
Plant elderberry seeds or cuttings after the threat of frost has passed (early spring). The American elderberry grows relatively fast and can reach up to 12 feet tall and six feet across, though a 10-foot height is more typical.
The American elderberry grows well in US Department of Agriculture hardiness zones three through nine.
American elderberry is very forgiving when it comes to light. It’s best to grow your elderberry in a location that gets at least partial sun, but a shady spot isn’t a dealbreaker for these shrubs.
Plant your American elderberry in well-draining soil. As with sunlight, the American elderberry isn’t terribly picky about soil, but humus-based soil with a neutral to acidic pH will make it happiest.
Elderberry shrubs have shallow roots that spread widely. Plant your shrubs with a good amount of distance between them (at least a few feet), so the roots can spread comfortably.
Although the American elderberry is a pretty adaptable shrub, it does have its Achilles’ heel: drought. Give your elderberry an inch or two of water per week during the growing season to keep it strong and prolific–maybe a bit more if it’s extremely hot and dry.
Elderberry plants, as mentioned, have a wide-spreading root system that is also quite shallow, so it should be relatively easy to tell if more water is needed. If the soil is dry to the touch, give your elderberry some water. Overwatering risk stays low if you truly have your plant in well-draining dirt.
Temperature and Humidity
Your easygoing American elderberry can do well in many conditions but prefers cool and moist to hot and dry.
You don’t have to fertilize your American elderberry plant, but using an all-in-one fertilizer will give you a better chance at a hearty berry crop.
In its second year, your elderberry may need a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Over about a month, observe your shrub. Too much fertilizer will make the nitrogen levels in the soil too high, and your plant won’t flower or fruit as prolifically as it should. You’ve fertilized appropriately if your elderberry plant produces green, healthy-looking leaves.
Elderberry tolerates as much pruning as you want to do. It is, after all, a mellow, easygoing plant. Prune in winter, cutting off dead or weak stems. Here’s a guide to our best choices for pruning shears.
Pests and Disease
Powdery mildew is the most common problem with the American elderberry, but it won’t kill the plant and can be treated with fungicide or by removing the affected stems and leaves. However, the plant has relatively weaker stems and branches, making them susceptible to snow and ice damage.
Elderberry plants are slow to germinate. If you’re planting seeds, start with lots of them.
Begin seeds indoors where it’s at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant your seeds about 1/4 inch into the soil of a seed tray or directly into a pot. Consider using a warming or germination mat to encourage growth at this stage.
If you choose to start with cuttings, take softwood cuttings in early spring, just as the plant is coming out of its dormant stage. Cut a soft, springy branch that is just beginning to harden, into 4-inch to 6-inch long segments.
Retain the top one-third of the leaves and remove the rest. Soak the cuttings in water for a day, then mix peat and sand in equal parts and add water until the mix is crumbly. Stick the bottom third of the cutting into the mixture and secure it with a clear plastic bag.
Place the cutting in indirect but bright light. Every few days, remove the bag, spritz the cutting, and then replace the bag.
When you’re ready to transplant your cuttings outside (after about six weeks), gently tug the plant and make sure there’s a little resistance. This indicates that the root system is strong and can withstand transplanting.
Where to Buy American Elderberry
American elderberry plants can be tricky to find, but you can find seeds online to purchase.
American Elderberry: A Great Addition to Your Garden
The American elderberry makes an easy, beautiful addition to your garden. Its flowers and berries have so many medicinal and culinary benefits that it’s hard to say why you shouldn’t plant a shrub or two.
Want to learn more about elderberries? Visit our elderberry page to learn more about growing and caring for your elderberry bush, American elderberry cultivars, and even the health benefits of elderberries.