When you think of elderberries, your first thought may be of your grandmother's home remedies that were sure to chase off any cold. While it's true that these deep purple clusters have their share of health benefits, they're good for much more than that. Frilly white flowers lend a cheery feel to the summer landscape, and the nearly-black berries can be used as a natural dye — not to mention in any number of delicious jams and teas. Couple that with their resilience and abundant growth, and it's easy to see why the elderberry is making such a comeback.
You've likely seen elderberries growing naturally along banks or by fence posts, as they thrive very naturally with little cultivation. They're certainly accustomed to an outdoor lifestyle, so it's best to plant them where they'll have room to flourish. Shallow soil with an acidic pH of 5.5 to 6.6 will suit your elderberry plant best, and it will tolerate any soil texture well. The one thing your elderberry plant does need is a well-aerated root system to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to root rot.
At their largest, elderberry plants can grow up to 12 feet high and 6 feet across, so they definitely prefer their share of space. Despite that, getting the maximum fruit yield possible still requires pollination, so your elderberry does need some company — albeit from a healthy distance. As a compromise, keep your elderberry plants within 60 feet of one another. That way, they'll be close enough for cross-pollination but will still have room to grow.
The elderberry's hardiness is one of its most desirable traits amongst gardeners yet to taste its fruit. Capable of growing in the colder climates of the northern midwest, the elderberry usually does best in hardiness zones 4 and under, and while it can tolerate partial shade, it prefers full sun when it can get it.
With a thirst as great as its craving for light, the elderberry plant is difficult to overwater. Its preference for moist environments is the reason you'll find it naturally growing on banks or in ditches, but if you're growing it in your garden, an inch of water per week is a good amount to give. With all that water just remember: the soil must have good drainage, or root rot may occur.
Their hardy nature enables the elderberry plant to resist attack from many hungry prey. The only exception is that its shallow root system can be crowded out by common weeds seeking the same space, but this can easily be resolved by regular weeding — though hungry birds will make a bid for those berries if you don't harvest them first.
Elderberry is susceptible to a few diseases. Cankers may infect its leaves and branches, while leaf spot and powdery mildew can harm its delicate berries. Root rot is the other major threat, but only if the surrounding soil has poor drainage. Other minor diseases include thread blight and verticillium wilt, but most can be treated simply by pruning back the affected areas.
The elderberry is as low-maintenance as it is resilient, requiring no rare or special nutrients. If you'd like to give your elder some extra nourishment, standard ammonium nitrate or fertilizer with a 10-10-10 NPK ratio will be the ideal supplement to coax this hardy shrub to produce its most abundant berry yield. Apply 1/8 of a pound of ammonium nitrate to each shrub for every year of its age, or 1/4 of a pound of 10-10-10 per year, and it will reward you with enough plump, juicy clusters that you'll be more than satisfied.
There are three cuttings from which you can propagate an elderberry plant: softwood, hardwood, and hardwood with sprouts. Softwood propagation is the most common and is quite simple. Trim off a few tender shoots of fresh growth sometime in the early summer months and place in a mason jar of water for about 12 hours, then plant and cultivate your new baby elder until it blooms to maturity.
In keeping with its simplicity, harvesting elderberries amounts to little more than clipping their clusters off the shrub. Each cluster contains a high concentration of berries, so instead of waiting for all of them to be fully ripe, it's better to pick them once the majority have turned a deep purple-black, even if there are a few stragglers. After all, the birds will not be so patient!
Elderberries have a unique tartness and mouthfeel that make for a delicious variety of jams, syrups, teas, and even wine. These clusters have long been used for medicinal purposes too, packed as they are with vitamin C and antioxidants. Because of this, elderberries are popular in many herbal tinctures and supplements. Always cook them before eating, though, as they are slightly toxic if consumed raw and may result in nausea.