Sunday, June 23, 2013

Respecting the Elders

With my job at the nursery, I get to drive around a lot. I get to meet all sorts of different people and see different plants. I have noticed this year, with the abundant amounts of rain that have been falling, that many plants are doing very, very well, except the Gardenias that I have seen, that is a story for another day.
One of the things that seem to be doing exceptionally well are the Elderberries (Sambucus spp.).
If you are not familiar with this plant, you have probably driven by some without even knowing it. Have you seen anything like this along your travels?

These North American natives are often found growing wild along roadsides, forest edges, and abandoned fields. Elderberries are so common, people have considered them a "ditch weed".
 They are attractive and easy to grow. They are at home in a Country Garden style landscape or a formal one. Not only does the plant look nice, the flowers and fruit are edible.
Elderberries grow best in a moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soils. It's a myth that they prefer swampy areas. In fact, they do not tolerate poor drainage.
In the wild they can range in height from about six feet to sixteen feet. The ones I have in my containers are still fairly young, 3-4 years old. They have never gotten above 5 feet before the cold knocks them back. 
They  grow well in full to partial sun locations and respond well to fertilization. The need for fertilizers can be judged by looking at the plant. If the bush is very vigorous, producing a lot of new growth, no fertilizer is needed. If few new canes are produced and growth appears poor, you may need to feed it. They grow best when fertilized annually with compost.
Elderberries have very shallow roots, so weeds can be a problem.  Use mulch for weed control and weed them by hand the first year or two. They will eventually form a dense enough shrub that will choke out the weeds themselves.
When it comes to the pruning of elderberries it is generally very simple. Weak, dead or broken canes should be pruned out, leaving six to eight vigorous canes to a plant. In late Winter, prune out branches more than 3 years old since these are less productive. Flowers and fruit develop on the tips of the current season's growth, often on the new canes but especially on laterals. Second-year elderberry canes with good lateral development are the most fruitful.
 Speaking of fruit, just take a look at this:

Isn't that beautiful?
They are used for wines, pies, jams and many other tasty treats. I have heard of folks using Elderberries in place of blueberries in recipes and it was fantastic. These things raw are not very edible, though there are folks that like them that way, there are also people that like Justin Beiber, so there is no accounting for taste. I have read that drying them makes them a little more palatable too, so it might be worth a try.
If you are hungry and just don't want to wait until the fruit ripens in late Summer, eat the flowers.

The white flower clusters make delicious fritters

Basically you dip them in batter and deep fry. There are all kinds of recipes online, search them out and give it a try.
These plants are really pest free, there are very few things that bother it. 
You can propagate new plants from softwood cuttings in the Spring, semi-hardwood in the Summer or from Winter hardwood. Elderberry plants can spread by rhizomes, you can also use layering, or dig up the suckers. There are numerous cultivars available at some nurseries, you will probably need to search out a Native Plant nursery to find them. A few to look for would be 'York' and 'Nova'. It is recommended that you have two different varieties for better fruit production. My feeling is, they are all over the place, if you don't have room in your yard for more than one, there is probably some just down the road from you.  
I have met people that just do not like the taste of Elderberries, no matter what you do to them. If you just like the looks of the plant and the flowers and such, no problem, the birds will eagerly accept the fruit. 
As a final thought, if you want to really make a statement, look for the cultivar 'Black Lace'. It is a black leaf plant that has light pinkish flowers and looks like this:

Happy Growing!


  1. I had a really nice Black Lace for about 5 years...grew to 5-6 feet tall. Got split over by an ice storm, then hit in a late freeze that same Spring and just flat out died. I miss it, but mainly for the contrast.

  2. I knew about the berries, but I didn't know you could eat the flowers. Thanks for this great post!