The genus sambucus is home to the well known and beloved elder or elderberry plant! Referred to as either a large shrub or as a small tree, this beautiful specimen is a proud member of the adoxaceae botanical family.
This wonderful flowering plant thrives both as a cultivated plant, and in the wild. They can commonly be found growing near farms and homesteads as they love to grow in compost enriched soil! Keep an eye out the next time you’re on a pastoral walk.
Chances are that you’ve tasted elderberry before, either through elderflower liqueur or elderberry jam, it is a favorite amongst cultures where they grow naturally. They’re used to make desserts, wine, and are even medicinally beneficial plant as well!
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What do Elderberry Plants Look Like?
Elderflowers are gorgeous. They usually boom in the late spring in large clusters of flowers. Each elder flower is comprised of 5 petals that are a waxy white color.
Elder blossom clusters are large and heavy and create a drooping growth habit. Flowers are rich in sweet nectar which attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to the garden.
Keep in mind that elder trees are rather slow growing (only at first), and you may have to wait 2 to 3 years before they will actually flower or produce elderberries.
The elder plant isn’t only valued for its ornamental flowers, it is also appreciated for its decorative foliage as well! Elder leaves are comprised of oppositely arranged, pinnate, compound leaves with 5-9 leaflets. Each elder leaf is anywhere from 2-12 inches in length, is a dark green color, and each leaflet has a serrated margin.
Elderflower plants are grown as either a large shrub or as a small tree. In shrub form they usually have multiple stems with bushy leaves, and are usually around 2 metres in height. Tree form elder plants will usually be single stemmed and can be up to 6 metres tall.
Elder bark is a light gray/brown color and it covered in lenticels and deep fissures and ridges. The older the tree gets, the deeper these fissures get, especially throughout a thick elder branch.
These plants are fast growing, and they usually won’t produce flowers or fruit for at least 2 to 3 years after planting. They can gain just over 30 inches of height per year, and some species can live to be upwards of 60 years!
What are some Elderberry Tree Species?
Black Elder (Sambucus Nigra)
The black elder, also known as the European black elderberry, is a prosperous shrub that can grow in all soil types, as long as it receives tons of sunlight.
This variety is a very common ornamental hedgerow feature in Britain, as it grows very quickly and in a naturally bushy habit. Not only are they used as an ornamental shrub, but they are a traditional ingredient for making wine and elderflower cordial.
Black elderberry trees produce very darkly colored berries (hence the epithet, nigra) and ivory white flower corymbs. They are one of the taller elderberry species and can achieve heights over 6 metres.
American Elder (Sambucus Canadensis)
The American elder is a very prosperous plant both in cultivation, and growing wild eastward of the rocky mountains in North America.
This deciduous shrub can grow to be around 3 metres in height, it produces beautiful corymbs of white flowers that are followed by drooping clusters of very dark purple elderberries.
Where are Elderberries Native to?
Elderberries are a wonderfully versatile plant, and they can exist and thrive in both temperate and subtropical regions around the world. They have an extensive growing range in the northern hemisphere, but are less prosperous in the southern hemisphere.
Different elder species are native to different continents, though they have been present in cultivation since Egyptian times in western Asia, Europe, and North Africa. They can exist in USDA growing zones 4 through 7.
They grow with enthusiasm in the wild as well. Since they are a nitrogen dependent plant, they will often be found growing near farms, homesteads, and riverbanks – as these are usually incorporated with organic waste.
How do You Propagate an Elder Tree?
Elder tree propagation is best done through planting seed, as the success rate for dividing root cuttings from a mother tree is rather slim. Introducing one of these plants to your garden can be done by any skill level gardener!
Pick a Spot
The most important part of this process is picking the proper spot on your property. Elder trees are a water loving species, and prefer to grow near some natural irrigation. So, if you happen to have a stream or pond near your property, plant it there!
The next most important aspect is the soil quality. Elder plants require soil that is very rich in nitrogen, and so they will naturally grow in areas like farms and near homesteads, because the soil there is usually rich in organic waste.
They are not picky about pH level or soil type, as long as it is nitrogen rich. Next, pick an area that receives the most amount of sunlight. This will help ensure that they experience a prosperous flower blossom season and fruiting season.
It is best to plant you elder seeds in the fall. This way they can take their time during their germination season, and be ready for their growth spurt in the spring.
If you’re looking to create a hedgerow specimen, plant them 12-20 inches apart from one another. Otherwise, plant a single seed for a separate trees.
Make sure that the soil is moist but receives all day sunlight. Plant the elder seed at least a 1/4 inch deep into the soil and cover. The seedling should start to appear in 4-6 weeks.
It is extremely important to know when to harvest both elderflowers and elderberries. Picking these when they are too immature can result in health concerns; so be sure when you harvest!
Harvesting flowers can be done once every single flower on the cluster has opened up. Simply clip off the entire cluster by its stem.
Harvesting berries can only be done once every single of the berries is completely ripe. You can tell that they are ripe because they are a very dark purple or red color and they are soft to the touch. Simply clip off the large bunch of berries (this is called an umbrella).
What are the Growing Conditions of Elder Trees?
Elder trees can tolerate many different soil types. Their many soil requirements are that it is well drained, sufficiently moist, and high in nitrogen.
In the wild they tend to grow in areas that are rich in organic matter – like farms and homesteads – because compost incorporates nitrogen into the soil. They will not perform well in nitrogen deficient soil.
Like many other fruit producing plants, the elderberry plant requires high levels of moisture in order to have a successful flower blossom and fruiting season.
The prefer to have consistent moisture, and will often grow in the wild near areas that experience natural irrigation, like streams and along river banks.
Elderberry trees should be watered within the week up to 1 inch of water. This should keep the plant happy.
The elder plant prefers to exist in full sun conditions. This means they require a minimum of 6 hours of full sun per day, usually best received in the morning.
Elderberry trees are a relatively cold hardy plant, and they can exist in USDA growing zones 4 through 7. They prefer temperate growing regions, and will simply shed their leaves in the fall to go dormant for the winter.
It is very important to prune your elderberry shrub or tree. They produce many runners and can very quickly take over your garden.
They are easily pruned and bent into shape, and respond very well to pruning. It is best to prune during its dormancy phase, which is in the late winter or early spring. A dead branch can be pruned at any time of year.
If the soil in which your elderberry plant is growing in not rich in nitrogen, it is important to give the plant a nitrogen rich fertilizer. Young plants can be given 2-3 tablespoons during their growing season, and mature plants can be given 1-2 cups during their growing season.
For all of the wonderful things that elder trees provide, they are also wonderfully easy to care for and maintain. Simply remember that they are drought intolerant, and intolerant to nutrient/nitrogen poor soil.
How are Elder Trees Used?
Elder trees make for wonderful ornamental plants. They are valued for their charming foliage, their beautiful clusters of white flowers, and for the dark purple clusters of berries that follow.
They are a very popular hedgerow plant as they are easily shaped and pruned. They can slo be grown as smaller specimens in pots and containers as well.
Both the flowers and berries of the elder berry plant can be eaten, as long as both are completely ripened to maturity. This is an incredibly important detail if you’re looking to harvest your own flower and fruit.
Ripened elder berries are high in Vitamin B6 and C, and they are rich in iron as well. They are commonly used to make elder wine, pies, juices, and much more.
They can also be taken for medicinal uses as a dietary supplement to help with digestion, hay fever, and flu symptoms. It can be taken as a elderflower tea, as an extract or in capsule form.
The long twigs are also flexible enough to be used for basket weaving. Stems and berries can be used for natural pigment dyeing to create a lovely dark purple pigment.
The flowers and fruit are important to their local wildlife ecology. Flowers are visiting by many pollinators and beneficial insects, and berries are eaten by species like band tailed pigeons.
They are also an important food source for various lepidopteran species (moths and butterflies), like the buff ermine, brown tail moth, emperor moth, engrailed moth, dot moth, and swallow tailed moth.