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Guide to Growing the Common Elder

Written by Stephanie on June 12th, 2017

The common elder (Sambucus nigra) is also called the European elder and elderberry.  It is native to Europe, including Great Britain, North Africa, and Western Asia.  There is an American elderberry, but it is not the same as this tree.  This deciduous tree grows to thirty-two feet.  It has deeply furrowed bark and a white pith.  The leaves are divided into pointed and toothed leaflets that produce a heavy odor when bruised.  The flowers are creamy-white, fragrant, and in broad, flattened heads five to eight inches across.  The tree flowers in the summer.  The black berries are used in wine making, jellies, and jams.  Make sure the berries are fully ripe before eating them or they will be poisonous.  You must cook them and not eat them raw.  The leaves and stems are poisonous.

Elderberry trees grow in zone four to eight.  Elderberries grow best in cool climates.  They will grow in full sun or partial sun.  This tree attracts bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other birds that feed on the berries.

Elderberries will grow in almost any soil.  They grow best in fertile loam soil, but can be grown in heavy clay as well.  The soil where they are planted must be well drained.  Elderberries prefer moist soil but do not like soggy soil.  Soggy soil may cause root rot.

Elderberries can be started from seed or cuttings.  Most people, however, buy it as a small plant and transplant it into the garden.  Remember that this tree can grow to be quite large, so allow enough space for the tree to spread out.  Do not plant too near the house as the roots can go under the house and cause foundation problems.

When you have found the ideal place for your elderberry, you will need to dig a hole twice the width of the roots and one and a half times as deep.  Spread the roots out in the hole, and place the tree at the level it was in the pot.  Fill in the dirt around the tree.  Clip one third of the tree off.  This gives the roots time to grow in the soil and find the water and nutrients the tree needs to grow and reduces the transplant stress for the tree.  Water the tree in, making sure you add enough dirt to keep the tree at the level it was growing at in the pot.

Elderberry plants can be grown as a shrub or a tree.  If you want a shrub, you can cut it to the ground in late winter to keep it tidy looking and healthy.  If you want a tree, be sure and remove the suckers from the trunk or you will get a shrub again.  Elderberries can be aggressive about taking over the flower bed they are planted in.  Make sure that you prune it to keep it in bounds.

Elderberries are generally pest and disease free.  Fertilize the elderberry in early spring using a slow release fertilizer intended for shrubs.


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