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How to Choose an Elderberry

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Three common species of elderberry plants grow up to 30 different varieties. All elderberries belong to the Sambucus genus, and the three most common species are the European or black elderberry (S. nigra), the American or sweet elderberry (S. canadensis) and the red elderberry (S. racemosa). The fruits of the red elderberry bush (S. racemosa) are toxic, so it’s not commonly grown or planted in the home landscape. Gardeners often use elderberries to make wines, jams, syrups and pies, as the berries offer a sweet and rich flavor when cooked. Choose an elderberry based on the climate, fruit quality and desired physical characteristics of the plant.

Choose an elderberry bush based on your region’s climate. The European or black elderberry (S. nigra) grows best in slightly warmer climates, where winter temperatures rarely get as cold as -20 to -25 degrees F. The American elderberry (S. canadensis) can grow in colder regions, where winter temperatures dip down to -40 degrees F.

  • Three common species of elderberry plants grow up to 30 different varieties.
  • The fruits of the red elderberry bush (S. racemosa) are toxic, so it’s not commonly grown or planted in the home landscape.
elderberries image by Clivia from Fotolia.com

Determine your desired berry quality and flavor. The black elderberry bush produces berries most commonly used in commercial recipes, syrups and extracts. The American elderberry yields slightly sweeter fruit than the European species.

Choose an elderberry bush based on its mature size and how appropriate it will be for the space in your landscape. The American elderberry usually grows up to 12 feet tall at maturity, while the European species grows to 30 feet in height.

sambucus image by Annett Goebel from Fotolia.com

Select an elderberry flower color. Nearly all American elderberry varieties have large, creamy-white flower clusters, while most European elderberries have pink flowers that can grow up to 10 inches across.

  • Determine your desired berry quality and flavor.
  • Nearly all American elderberry varieties have large, creamy-white flower clusters, while most European elderberries have pink flowers that can grow up to 10 inches across.
Elderberry image by Valeriy82 from Fotolia.com

Select an elderberry variety by its foliage. European elderberries have dark-purple to purplish-black leaves, while American elderberries have bright to dark green foliage.

Tip

Also consider the color of the berries. European elderberry bushes produce black berries, while American elderberries usually produce shiny dark-purple berries. The “Goldbeere” variety, a cultivar of the black elderberry, has golden-colored berries. Keep in mind that you need to cook the berries from the S. nigra species for them to be edible, because the raw berries contain properties that can cause digestive ailments.

Warning

Elderberries do not self-pollinate, so you’ll need to plant two different elderberry cultivar varieties that can cross-pollinate each other. Space the elderberry cultivars less than 60 feet apart.

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