Home Fruit Plantings: Elderberries

Because of their tartness and relative seediness, elderberries are rarely eaten fresh.
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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.

Planting and Fertilization

In early spring, plant rooted cuttings 5 to 7 feet apart in the row, with a minimum of 10 feet between rows. Apply 2 ounces of ammonium nitrate per year of the plant's age (up to no higher than 1 pound per plant) in a ring around the plant in early spring.


New shoots from healthy elderberry plants usually produce several new canes each year; these attain their full height during that first year. The most fruitful are 2-year-old canes with several lateral branches. Unlike on most other fruiting plants, clusters are born terminally on the current season's growth. Because older trunks lose vigor and become weak after 2 to 3 years, they should be removed along with any dead, broken, or weak canes. Remove canes at ground level during the dormant season, leaving an equal number of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old canes.


Clusters should be cut and the berries stripped from the stems and processed quickly. Avoid excessive heat buildup in the field.