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How and Why to Grow Elderberry

Avatar for Jodie Weston Jodie Weston  |  Updated: June 22, 2018
How and Why to Grow Elderberry

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There are quite a few good reasons to grow elderberry; those range from the many medicinal benefits to the culinary delights such as elderberry syrup, jams, and it is even a great fruit for making wine.

This long list of benefits is the short version of why you should grow elderberry. Inside this article, we expand on that list and discuss how you can grow elderberry in many regions.

What are the Benefits of Elderberry

Medicinal Uses of Elderberry

Elderberry has many uses as traditional medicines. I will list some of those uses but recommend that you do more research on how to properly use elderberry as a medication. Also, please note that there are a variety of elderberry species and not all species of elderberry are used in the same way.

elderberry white flowers

Elderberry for Colds and Flu

Native Americans used elderberry to help with respiratory illnesses such as the common cold and the flu. The berries and flowers are primarily used, and these can be steeped into a tea. Later, the adaption of this plant to a medicinal syrup helped early settlers to reap the benefits of this beautiful and potent tree/shrub.

As a Fever Reduction Agent

Native peoples used almost the entire plant as medication and one of its benefits is to help reduce fevers and headaches, much in the same way that willow bark does.

As a Diuretic

Diuretics help the body to eliminate fluid usually via the bladder. Elderberry is a diuretic and was used traditionally to help with kidney issues, bladder infections, and to help people increase the amount of fluid that they eliminated. In modern medicine, diuretics are often used with conditions such as Congestive Heart Failure to help reduce the amount of fluid in the body’s tissues.

As a Beauty Product

Yes, even Native Americans have traditional herbs that were for improving beauty. Special blends of leaves, flowers, and berries were part of this regime and when ground into a damp mat the mixture was applied topically as a poultice.

Be Warned!

The use of elderberry for medicine or for food requires practice and knowledge. If not prepared correctly, the concoction can form a hydrocyanic acid – cyanide. There are countless cases of elderberry poisoning and even the death of livestock from grazing on the trees.

Elderberry for Food

Elderberry is used to make wine, jams, jellies, and mead and was even added to bread. Again, it is important to understand which variety of elderberry you are dealing because most cannot be consumed in their raw form and those that can only be eaten at specific times.

elderberry purple

Elderberries are a good source of vitamins and nutrients. They offer around 100 calories per 1-cup and nearly 27g of carbohydrates. If you are looking for a natural source of calcium, the same cup of elderberry has about 55 mg of calcium and 2.2 mg of iron. However it is a huge sink for potassium and contains over 400 mg of vitamin K. It is also rich in vitamin with plenty of vitamin C, B-12, A, and others.

The benefits of growing and using elderberry are many especially for those preppers who are looking for alternative ways to grow medicinal plants and herbs. In addition, this is a plant that can add to your food stores and the availability of fresh foods during certain times of the year.

How to Grow Elderberry

There are some general rules that you can follow if you decide to grow elderberries at home. Before we get into those, we should start with a bit about local climates, etc. There are many varieties of elderberry and those species have subspecies.

Each variety adapts to different growing conditions. As such, your best bet is to start with the variety that is naturally found in your area. The reason for this is that those plants are best adapted to where you live.

For the most part, elderberries are very easy to grow. Sambucus nigra is a native of Europe and can be found in many nurseries The native version for American is Sambucus canadensis. The European elderberry reaches to 20-25 feet in height while the American elderberry is fairly short at 12-15 feet.

elderberry flowers

Both are sprawling and gangly shrubs that produce a brilliant and complete bloom that covers the entire shrub for a short period of time in late spring and early summer. These plants bloom at different times depending on where they are located – zones, altitude, etc.

For the most part, you can find elderberries growing in US Ag zones 3-8 and sometimes into zones 9 and 10.

There are a few subspecies of elderberry that occur naturally. Many of these medicinal shrubs have dark blue or black fruit, but a few have red berries. Again, you want to be very specific about what type of elderberry you grow because there are rules that you must follow to make the fruit safe to eat or the flowers, leaves and bark, safe to use as medicines.

Growing Elderberries

There is a lot of advice out there on how to grow elderberries. If you stick with your native varieties you can look at the soil in which they grow and then mimic those conditions.


Slightly acidic soil is favored by elderberries. The more detritus the soil – that which is very high in organic matter is ideal though generally, these shrubs tend to grow almost everywhere. The keys, however, is not just to get them to grow, but to thrive and produce large yields. To do that, you need to pay attention to soil pH and the amount of compost – organic matter – in the soil.

These trees like soil that drains well, holds moisture but does not become a bog. It is true that these grow in clay-type soil, but they are not going to thrive. They will struggle to find nutrients and fight off root disease, etc.

If the soil around your home is a heavy clay soil then dig a trench and amend that trench to fit the growing needs for these shrubs. Yes, it is a lot of work, but the reward is amazing.


These shrubs are a mix of understory plants and full sun. To that end, they love a lot of light and some shade too. They will tolerate full sun and grow just fine but will thrive on the margin of other trees where they get some afternoon shade and almost full sun.

elderberry green growing

The root system on elderberries is very shallow. Consider that fact when planning their location. While not horribly large, their roots can disrupt patios and cause foundation issues. It is best to grow them away from structures.


This shrubs, like most, need pruning. They tend to send up a lot of suckers from around the trunk and within their root system. Those need to be removed each spring or late fall when they lose their leaves.

Plan to fertilize them annually, either by adding compost to the topsoil or with commercial fertilizer.
Plan to check the shrub each year for cane bores – boring beetles, that can cause plant damage and disease. Pruning each year is the best way to control and prevent cane borer infestation.

elderberry bloom purple growing

Elderberries are a prime food source for birds too so if you are planning on harvesting the berries, you will need to net the shrubs to keep the birds out of your harvest.

The berries are typically ready to harvest during August and into September. That is the time of year you will need to place netting over the shrubs. The berries form in rich raciness and when you harvest the fruit it is easiest to snip off the entire cluster rather than pick each berry.

The berries are ripe when they are a deep purple. Also, be prepared to use the berries immediately. They must be stored in the refrigerator as soon as they are picked and processed quickly.

These beautiful shrubs make an excellent addition to homesteads and prepping households. The key to using any plant for food or medicine is knowledge. Be sure to do the homework before using or eating elderberry as they can be toxic and cause life-threatening conditions.

The many benefits of elderberry make them a natural source of both food and medicine for people who want to have access to alternative forms of medication and food. They are also an excellent addition to households where food security is a concern.

elderberry drink

Growing your own food and medicinal plants is how our ancestors lived. We have lost that knowledge as a population and replaced it with grocery stores and big pharma.

One last tipwhen choosing the type of elderberry you grow, the European variety tend to be a bit tarter than are the American varieties. It is also perfectly fine to mix elderberry species and they tend to produce more when they grow in mixed communities. This is likely due to cross-pollination.

If elderberries are something you already grow, please share your experience or uses for these outstanding plants.

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3 Responses to “How and Why to Grow Elderberry”

  1. I planted 2 elderberry bushes last year and they are growing well. You mention being concerned about following the rules to safely consume these berries but don’t mention really what they are. Can anyone help expound on what we need to do or not to do to be safe. Thanks

    • Terry, to make elderberry safe to consume they need to be cooked. The heat changes the chemistry and prevents the metabolism of hydrocyanic acids.

  2. I’ve grown Elderberries for a number of years. If I can get to the berries before the Cedar Waxwings do, I’ve made jelly, pancake syrup, medicinal tincture & used the flowers for tea. Sambucus canadensis what a great asset to a home landscape.

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