Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis syn. S. nigra ssp. canadensis) has a native range including most of the continental United States and Eastern Canada. In spite of having a number of desirable characteristics, it is often overlooked as an attractive plant for the home landscape. It is hardy, has attractive flowers and edible fruit and a moderate mature size of 5-10 feet. Site requirements include a moist but well-drained soil and full sun to light shade. About 1” of water per week is recommended from flower initiation through fruit development.
Flowers are white and occur in rather flat compound umbels that are 4-6” in diameter. The flowers have a pleasant fragrance and are present in early summer for about one month. The fruits are small purple drupes produced in clusters and they will ripen over a period of 1-2 weeks during mid August to mid September. Berries are very perishable and should be refrigerated promptly. Elderberries can be used to make delicious pie, jam, juice, wine and even soup. The berries can be used as a source of color for food products. The blossoms are used for making wine or can be deep fried. Leaves are compound with five to seven 2-3” leaflets.
Photos: UConn Plant Database (left and above), Wikipedia (right, fruit).
When fruit is desired from a landscape elderberry, fruit production will be increased by planting two or more cultivars for cross-pollination. Recommended plant spacing is at least six feet. The best time to plant elderberry is early spring. Set the plants at the same depth that they were planted in the nursery. Water at or very soon after planting.
Little or no pruning should be done during the first two years. Beginning in the third year, prune in early spring before new growth begins. Remove canes that are three or more years in age and any weak or dead canes.
Birds are the biggest pest of elderberries. They will eat the fruit crop if it is not protected. The most effective protection is netting. Other animals that enjoy the fruit are squirrels, chipmunks and mice. Insect pests of elderberry include the elder shoot borer, the elderberry long-horned beetle, sap beetles, and a number of others that are usually not significant problems.
A few diseases occur on elderberry and they include tomato ringspot virus, stem and twig cankers caused by fungi, and powdery mildew. Tomato ringspot virus is vectored by a plant parasitic nematode. The soil can be tested for the nematode prior to planting if desired. Testing is available at the UConn Plant Diagnostic Lab. Contact info for the lab is available at the UConn Home & Garden Education Center website.