About Elderberries


Relatives: honeysuckle

The Black Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra) is native and common within Europe and the UK and is found growing wild along hedgerows, edges of woodlands, and often on waste ground. Elderberry fruits and flowers have been used for many thousands of years, with fruits traditionally made into juice, preserves, and wines, and the whole plant is important medicinally. There is an old saying that 'he who cultivates elderberry will die in his own bed'! The fruits were used in Neolithic times, and then later in Ancient Greece. The Romans introduced the plant into Britain and elsewhere. Traditionally it was revered for its magical powers, but was also unfairly associated with sorrow and death, as it was believed that is was the tree that Christ was crucified from, which is highly unlikely. In contrast, the Russians and English believed the trees drove away evil spirits. In Denmark, it was regarded as having magical properties and that if one stood beneath an elder tree on mid-summer's eve, one would see the King of Fairyland ride by. It was not often cultivated widely in Europe as it is so commonly found in the wild. Can be grown as a shrub or be trained into a small tree. Elderberry is easy to grow and needs little maintenance.

The North American Elderberry (S. Canadensis) grows wild all around the U.S. and is much smaller than its European cousin, generally growing into a wide multi-stemmed shrub up to 10' - 12' tall.


A large, vigorous, multi-stemmed shrub. Stems are often hollow. Younger stems have distinctive warty lenticels, whereas older wood matures to form corky, fissured reddish-yellow bark.

LEAVES: Deciduous, long, pinnate, medium green, similar to walnut leaves. They are oval, tapering at the base with a tipped apex, and the margins are lightly toothed. The leaves and stem have a strong smell when crushed that some find unpleasant. One of the first to leaf out in spring.

FLOWERS: Distinctive, strongly musky-sweet scented, large, flat-topped, creamy clusters of many small flowers, which can cover the shrub/tree in late spring-early summer.

Fruit: Trees are covered by numerous flat, wide clusters of many, small, dark purple to black, juicy berries. The skin is edible, and moderately thick for the size of fruit. The fruits are filled with a very dark, purple, juicy pulp, which is sweet and tasty when ripe. The have 3-5 small, hard, black edible seeds in the middle.


LOCATION: Grows in the sun or light shade. Can tolerate moderate wind and some air pollution. Not very suited to salty conditions.

PLANTING: Space plants about 6-16 feet apart. Although they can be planted close together to form a screen or an informal hedge.

PRUNING: Prune to prevent the shrub becoming invasive. Cut back plants severely and they will regrow; some cut plants right back to the ground in some years. Fruit is produced on the current season's wood. Cutting down older stems in autumn produces lots of vigorous new stems in spring. Plants are sometimes pruned to five or six 1-year-old shoots, and only one or two 2-year-old stems are left. 


There are several attractive ornamental cultivars, e.g. with golden-colored leaves. A subspecies has yellow fruits.