Because of their tartness and relative seediness, elderberries are eaten fresh only rarely; however, they offer a low-cost, low-maintenance fruit crop from which a delightful jelly or pie can be produced. Their fruit is extremely rich in vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and the plant is well adapted to Pennsylvania conditions.
The American elder, Sambucus canadensis (L.), is a shrub with individual canes that grow in a clump and reach 4 to 15 feet in height. It is indigenous to North America, with a range from Nova Scotia to Minnesota and south to Florida and Texas. The leaves are pinnately compound, with five to eleven leaflets averaging 5 inches in length and having finely serrate margins. The flower cluster, which is called a cyme, ranges from 3 to 10 inches in diameter. The plants are extremely winter hardy, the flowers are pleasantly scented, and the plant may be used as an ornamental.
Like most fruit plants, elderberries require well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. The root system is very fibrous and shallow, so cultivation should be shallow. The plants come into full production after 3 to 4 years, with berries maturing in late August to early September.