Black Lace® elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Photo by Proven Winners.

Elton John may sing about “feeling fine on elderberry wine,” but the shrub that bears that intoxicating fruit offers many other attributes that gardeners can feel good about.

You may have seen elderberries laden with clusters of dark purple berries growing in the wild along roadsides, woodlands and streambanks, but never considered growing them yourself. “Unfortunately, few people think of the elderberry as an ornamental shrub that would bring beauty to their property,” says Sandy Helsel, of the Herb Society of America. “Today there are numerous cultivars with attractive foliage in green, near black, or yellow and flowers in white, pink, or gold. All can be attractive additions to the garden.”

In addition to their ornamental qualities, they are a valuable contributor to the ecosystem. Providing food and shelter for many species of songbirds and nectar for pollinating insects, elderberries can turn any garden into a beautiful wildlife sanctuary.

On this page: The Basics | Types | Planting and Growing | Pruning Tips | Pictures | Garden Uses

THE BASICS

Botanical name:

Sambucus

Plant Type:

Deciduous shrub, although many people refer to them as elderberry trees.

Hardiness:

Zones 4-9, depending on the species. May survive in colder regions with protection.

Exposure:

Partial to full sun

Bloom time:

Spring and summer

Height:

From 2 feet all the way up to 20 feet, depending on the variety.

Average lifespan:

25 to 50 years

What’s edible:

The flowers and berries have been used for centuries for both culinary and medicinal purposes. The antioxidant-packed berries usually ripen in late summer, between mid-August and mid-September, and can be used to make pies, jams, jellies and wine, and the flowers are often added to cordials and tea (see this recipe for an elderflower cordial).

Toxicity:

Unripe or raw berries and all other parts of the plant are toxic, including the leaves, stems, seeds and roots.

TYPES

Common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis):

Also called “American black elderberry”, this woodland species is native from eastern and central Canada to the southern U.S. It grows to a height of 8 to 12 feet and has large flat-topped clusters of white flowers that emerge in profusion in midsummer, followed by purple-black fruit in late summer and early fall. It spreads by suckers and can be a vigorous grower, so it’s best suited for naturalizing or mass plantings. Zones: 3-9

Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra):

Also called "European elderberry", it is similar to the American variety but often taller (up to 20 feet) and has an earlier bloom season. The cultivars of this species have become popular garden plants, with many featuring smaller growth habits, purple or variegated foliage, and double flowers. Zones: 4-8

Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea):

Sometimes classified as a tree rather than a shrub, this type grows to a height of up to 30 feet. Native to western North America, from Oregon to Baja all the way to western Texas, it thrives in a wide range of climates. Creamy yellow flowers in the spring are followed by dark bluish-purple berries in fall. Zones: 4-9.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa):

A more cold-tolerant species often selected as an ornamental because of its attractive red berries and dense, erosion-preventing root systems. The fruit is less palatable than that of others, but is still very attractive to birds. Grows 8 to 12 feet tall, with a broad, arching form. The fruit often causes stomach upset in many people. Zones: 3-7

Dwarf elderberry (Sambucus ebulus):

In addition to its shorter stature (2 feet tall on average), dwarf elder differs in one important way from others in that it forms very robust underground rhizomes and can quickly produce large colonies. As a garden plant, it is best suited for growing in large containers or in a location where it won’t become invasive. As with red elderberry, the fruit of this type also causes stomach upset in many. Zones: 4-8.

PLANTING AND GROWING

Planting Instant Karma® elderberry

Where to plant:

Grow in full sun in moderately moist, humusy soil. Although they will all tolerate part shade, yellow- and purple-leaved varieties may not develop optimum leaf coloration.

When to plant:

Fall or early spring

How to plant:

Before planting, amend the soil with compost to improve drainage. Although they grow well in moist soil, it shouldn’t be soggy. Space plants 6 to 10 feet apart, depending on the mature size, to allow good air flow between them when fully grown. Though many varieties are self-fruiting, you can encourage higher yields by planting another cultivar of the same species nearby (within 50 to 60 feet) to encourage cross pollination.

General care:

Keep them well watered, especially the first year after planting, because of their shallow roots. To stimulate fruit production, fertilize annually in early spring by applying a granular fertilizer formulated for trees and shrubs.

Propagating:

You can propagate from dormant hardwood cuttings taken in late fall or winter, from softwood cuttings taken in spring or summer, or from root or rhizome cuttings. Although they can be grown from seed, cultivated varieties may not stay true to type.

When to harvest:

Harvest flowers in early spring and the berries when they ripen in late summer or early fall. Unripe berries are toxic and so are their stems, so be sure to remove them before cooking and processing the berries. Typically, they will begin producing fruit two or three years after planting.

Pests:

Generally free of pests, which makes them great shrubs if you want to avoid the use of pesticides.

PRUNING TIPS

Photo by Krasula / Shutterstock

Pruning benefits:

Elderberries are very tolerant of pruning, and doing so on a regular basis not only keeps plants dense and more manageable, it can also result in a wonderful display of vibrant foliage. Removing older branches will also result in better fruit production.

When to prune:

In late winter or early spring while the plant is dormant and before leaves start to emerge. You can also prune immediately after flowering if you don’t want your plants to bear fruit.

How to prune:

They bear opposite buds, so prune straight across the branch, above the buds, using a sloping cut. The aim is to reduce the structure down to a low framework and reinvigorate the plant. Also thin out some of the old, congested wood from the center as well as any dead or diseased branches. Regularly removing older branches encourages the growth of new ones that often produce larger, more vibrantly colored leaves.

Removing suckers:

Many types spread by root suckers to form colonies. Prune the suckers as they appear, unless naturalizing is your goal.

ELDERBERRY PICTURES

Swipe to view slides

Photo: Proven Winners

Black Lace® elderberryBuy now from Proven Winners
(Sambucus nigra 'Eva')

Zones:

4-7

Height:

6 to 8 feet

Bloom Time:

Early summer

This may be the most ornamental and is certainly the most exotic. With its finely cut dark-purple leaves you might mistake it for a weeping Japanese Maple, until the massive 6-inch heads of pink flowers burst open in summer in dramatic contrast to the nearly black foliage. In early fall, the flowers give way to deep burgundy, almost black berries. Plants require full sun for the best foliage color.

Photo: Proven Winners

Lemony Lace® elderberryBuy now from Proven Winners
(Sambucus racemosa 'SMNSRD4')

Zones:

3-7

Height:

3 to 5 feet

Bloom Time:

Early spring

A complete turnaround from the inky foliage of Black Lace®, the lemon-yellow leaves of this show-stopper brighten the landscape like rays of foliar sunshine. Emerging in spring tinged in red, the leaves keep their bright color straight through the summer. In fall, dark red berries bask in the radiance of the vibrant foliage.

Photo: Spring Meadow Nursery

Black Beauty® elderberryBuy now from Proven Winners
(Sambucus nigra 'Gerda')

Zones:

4-8

Height:

8 to 15 feet

Bloom Time:

June to July

This European cultivar is the first bred to produce pink blooms, which look all the more stunning set off by the glossy dark-purple foliage. Even the young stems of the plant are purple. Another unique feature is the sweet anise scent emitted by the large clusters of flowers when they open in early summer. Looks especially striking when paired with Lemony Lace™ or other foliage plants with gold or chartreuse leaves.

Photo: Proven Winners

Instant Karma® elderberryBuy now from Proven Winners
(Sambucus nigra 'Sanivalk')

Zones:

4-7

Height:

6 to 8 feet

Bloom Time:

Early summer

A variegated selection with blue-green leaves and creamy white margins. Lacy clusters of tiny white flowers cover the plant in early summer, and if a pollinator variety is planted nearby, they will yield a crop of purple-black fruit in autumn.

Photo: Spring Meadow Nursery

Laced Up® elderberryBuy now from Proven Winners

Zones:

4-7

Height:

6 to 10 feet

Bloom Time:

Early summer

If you love the look of popular Black Lace® or Black Beauty® elderberries but just don't have the room, Laced Up® has a columnar habit, taking up far less space. Feathery black foliage and pink summer flowers provide unmatched texture and color.

Photo: kpzfoto / Alamy Stock Photo

Golden elderberry
(Sambucus canadensis 'Aurea')

Zones:

3-9

Height:

8 to 10 feet

Bloom Time:

June to July

The deep-yellow to yellow-green leaves of ‘Aurea’ are not as finely cut as those of Lemony Lace™ but they are equally striking and look especially vibrant when grown in partial shade. In spring, tiny star-shaped white flowers borne in flat-topped clusters up to 10 inches across seem to sparkle against the bright foliage. As the summer progresses, the berries ripen to a rich wine-red color.

Photo: Spring Meadow Nursery

York elderberry
(Sambucus canadensis 'York')

Zones:

3-9

Height:

6 to 10 feet

Bloom Time:

May to June

Jam makers rejoice! This American elder cultivar produces the largest fruit size and highest yields of any elderberry, making it the perfect choice for stocking a pantry or sustaining the local bird population. Huge clusters of tiny white flowers in spring are responsible for the bounty of dark purple berries that appear in late summer. For the best fruit production, pair it with another cultivar of the same species to encourage cross pollination.

GARDEN USES

Elderberries make good choices for:

  • Wildlife gardens
  • Screening
  • Back-of-the-border hedge
  • Naturalizing
  • Rain gardens
  • Erosion control
  • Understory trees
  • Specimen plants

RELATED:
Shrubs 101: A Guide to Growing Shrubs
10 Ways to Start Building a Garden for Wildlife
10 Shrubs You'll Love
Berries for Year-Round Color

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