Grow elderberries as a fruit-bearing ornamental

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Last Updated: 
June 1, 2007

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Your grandmother may have used elderberries for jam and your great-grandmother may have made wine with these tart native fruits. Native Americans ate them and used various parts of the plant for medicinal purposes.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is native to the eastern United States, while blue elderberry (S. cerulea) is native to the western U.S. and grows throughout Oregon.

In fact, elderberries were once so common, people considered them a "ditch weed," explained Chad Finn, berry geneticist, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Horticultural Crops Research Laboratory in Corvallis and courtesy faculty at Oregon State University's Department of Horticulture. Historically, no one thought of planting them for commercial production.

Today there are commercial plantings of elderberry in Europe and Chile, as these tiny fruits are used in nutritional supplements. In the United States, small commercial plantings have been started in the Midwest particularly to produce berries for the wine market.

In Oregon, a major jam and jelly supplier had a long history using elderberries, but they decided in 2004 to discontinue their use, said Finn.

Elderberries make nice landscape plants as well as fruit plants. They perform well as a tall, deciduous hedge or windscreen. They have large flat clusters of white blossoms in the summer and bunches of gray/blue or purplish-black berries in the early fall. Butterflies are attracted to the flowers, and many species of small birds flock to the berries in September.

Late winter and early spring is a great time to start thinking about major additions to your garden, such as elderberry shrubs.

Finn says there are many forms of black elder, also known as the European elderberry (S. nigra) used as ornamentals including variegated and purple leaf forms.

"'Black Lace' is the new hot ornamental plant," said Finn, "with its finely divided purple leaves reminiscent of Japanese maple."

Elderberries grow to a height of about six to 16 feet, depending on the growing conditions. Each bush puts up many canes that flower and fruit, primarily in their second and third years.

If you want to beat the birds to the berries, Finn suggests covering the plants with lightweight netting when the berries begin to form in the late summer.

In good soil and with good drainage and attention to pruning and watering, elderberry will grow to form a dense thicket, with gracefully arching branches and long slender, dark green compound leaves. It grows best in sun.

To start an elderberry hedge, put out young plants in the early spring, placing them six to 10 feet apart. Elderberries will grow in a wide range of pH and fertility. Although they respond well to fertilization, they don't absolutely require it. They need to be watered until they are well-established, but they also require good drainage.

Use mulch for weed control and weed them by hand the first year or two, taking care not to damage their shallow roots. Once they're established, they'll grow dense enough to discourage weeds.

If you want them to fruit dependably, some sources recommend planting at least two different cultivars within at least 60 feet so they can cross-pollinate. But, Finn said, "I have only one cultivar of S. nigra (the European elderberry) and it fruits very nicely."

The plant is relatively pest-free, and other than pruning, requires little labor. Prune and remove the dead canes yearly, starting the third or fourth year, to maintain a healthy hedge.

Elderberry spreads by rhizomes, layering, and suckers as well as by sprouting new canes. Finn says you can propagate new plants from softwood in the spring or from winter hardwood.

The berries are rarely eaten raw, primarily because their astringent flavor greatly improves by cooking. They should be picked and eaten only when fully ripe. Some recipes suggest combining them with rhubarb or other berries.

"The flowers can be used to make a wonderful refreshing drink," Finn says. "In the eastern U.S., the flowers are often batter dipped and fried much like squash flowers."

Red elderberry (S. racemosa) grows wild in Oregon only west of the Cascades. The intense red berries are generally considered unpalatable to humans. Other parts of the plant, particularly the roots, are poisonous.

If you prefer the look of red berries to blue ones, this plant is similar as an ornamental to common elderberry, with the advantage that it is slightly more shade-tolerant. Also, since you won't be competing with the birds for these berries, you won't need to cover them with netting in the late summer.

Finn says that elderberry research is ongoing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-ARS adjacent to OSU in Corvallis. The work is in cooperation with the University of Missouri and Missouri State University, where they have a long-term elderberry research program. They hope to determine the cultivars with the highest levels of anti-oxidants and whether other plant parts (leaves, stems, bark) are a significant source of anti-cancer compounds. He says they also want to identify the best performing cultivars for any possible future commercial plantings in the Northwest.

Author: Davi Richards
Source: Chad Finn