The elderberry (Sambucus) is a versatile plant. Many ornamental varieties have been bred for landscape use. They can be grown in small garden spaces where larger trees are prohibitive. Elderberries can be found growing wild throughout the U.S. In their native habitat, they can grow singly or in large thickets. They favor moist areas along creek and river banks but are common in clearings and logged areas.
Some elderberry plants are only 5- to 6-foot shrubs at maturity. Others can reach up to 12 feet tall and develop into small trees. The wood is hollow and grows at a fast rate. Trees are multi-stemmed and vase shaped. The long pinnate leaves have multiple leaflets, creating a graceful appearance. The flowers are borne in flat clusters containing many tiny flowers. Most are white, but some varieties have pink flowers. The berries can be blue-black, pure black or red.
Elderberries are grown for their berries, flowers and foliage. Good varieties with purple foliage are "Thundercloud," "Guincho Purple" and "Black Beauty." A smaller elderberry, called "Black Lace," has black foliage with intricately cut leaves. There is also a green cut-leaf variety called "Laciniata." Yellow-leaved elderberries have a presence in the garden. Examples are: "Sutherland's Gold" and "Aurea." "Variegata" has cream and yellow variegation in the leaves. Many of the decorative varieties are bred from the European elder (Sambucus nigra). North America has four native elderberries. Two Western natives are the blue elder (Sambucus cerulea), and the red elder (Sambucus racemosa). There are also two Eastern species, (Sambucus canadensis) with blue-black berries, and (Sambucus pubens) with red berries.
Elderberries at the nursery come in 1-, 3-, and 5-gallon sized containers. A small tree can reach its mature size in only a few years. Elderberries grow best with morning sun, and shade in the hot afternoon. They will tolerate full sun if given regular summer water. The variegated, cut leaf and yellow forms can suffer from sunburn. Species elders with green foliage are more adaptable to heat. They do well with most soil types, and thrive in those that remain wet year-round. Elderberries grow rapidly and do not require fertilizer. The best nutrition for elderberry trees is a top-dressing of rich compost each year. Elders are cold hardy to USDA zone 3.
Pruning and Shaping
Elderberries are fast-growing deciduous plants. They can be left alone or pruned to shape. Dead twigs should be removed each year for appearance. When necessary, they can withstand severe pruning. To hold an elderberry back, a gardener should prune it in spring and fall. It is easier to begin with a smaller variety like "Black Beauty" for limited space.
Elderberries are useful planted for the wildlife garden. The berries are important food for many birds and mammals. The blue-black berries have long been made into juice, wine, cough syrup, pancake syrup and baked goods. The red berries are not used for edible purposes. The flowers have a light refreshing fragrance and are distilled into elder water and used in cosmetics.
Blue elderberries are safe to eat. Red elderberries, which are strictly ornamental, are not. There are also warnings against using the twigs, roots or leaves for edible purposes.