Elderberries are popular for their unusual taste in pies,
jellies, and jams. They are occasionally used in winemaking. The plants
are very hardy (usually to Zone 4 but some kinds to Zone 3), and because
they flower in late June, the crop is seldom damaged by late spring frost.
They are attractive and easy to grow, and are great in
landscape plantings. Elderberries contain more phosphorus and potassium
than any other temperate fruit crop. The fruit is also rich in vitamin
Elderberries grow best in moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a
pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soil texture,
fertility, and acidity. It's a myth that they prefer swampy areas. In
fact, they do not tolerate poor drainage. Plant elderberries in spring,
as soon as possible after they arrive from the nursery to prevent plants
from drying out. Space plants 6 to 10 feet apart. Elderberries are shallow
rooted, so keep them well-watered during the first season. Plants are
easy to propagate from hardwood cuttings taken when plants are dormant.
Elderberries respond well to fertilization. In addition to incorporating
manure or compost before planting, apply additional fertilizer annually
in early spring. Apply 1/8 pound of ammonium nitrate (or .5 lbs. 10-10-10)
for each year of the plant's age, up to one pound per plant (or up to
4 lbs. 10-10-10).
The most difficult problem faced when growing elderberries is weed
control. Because they have shallow roots, do not cultivate deeper than
2 inches. After the first year, it is best to avoid disturbing the soil
at all because the slightest injury can damage the fibrous root system
or kill one of the new upright shoots. Use a combination of pulling weeds
by hand while they are still small, mowing and mulching to control weeds
without disturbing the elderberry roots. Once you develop a thick hedgerow
of plants, elderberries can suppress weeds quite well.
Harvest elderberry fruit in late August through early September,
depending on the cultivar. When ripe, the entire cluster should be -removed
and the berries stripped from the cluster for use. Uncooked berries have
a dark purple juice and are astringent and inedible. Use the fruit as
soon as possible or keep it at a cool temperature for later use. It is
difficult to transport elderberries because the fruits fall off the cluster
Elderberries send up many new canes each year. The canes usually
reach full height in one season and develop lateral branches in the second.
Flowers and fruit develop on the tips of the current season's growth,
often on the new canes but especially on laterals. Second-year elderberry
canes with good lateral development are the most fruitful. In the third
or fourth year, older wood tends to lose vigor and become weak. In late
winter to early spring while the plants are dormant, remove all dead,
broken or weak canes, plus all canes more than three years old. Leave
an equal number of one, two, and three-year-old canes.
Individual flowers are small, white, and borne
in large compound clusters. They are nearly self-unfruitful, so plant
two different cultivars within 60 feet of each other to provide adequate
cross-pollination. 'Adams No. 1' and 'Adams No. 2' are two old cultivars,
introduced by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in 1926.
They are strong, vigorous, productive, hardy to Zone 4 and bear large
fruit clusters. They also ripen late, with fruit maturing in early September.
Other cultivars with large clusters and berries include 'York',' Johns','
Kent','Nova', and 'Scotia'. 'York' is somewhat more productive than the
Adams series, and the berries tend to be larger.
Diseases and Insects
Elderberry plants are generally free of pests, which makes them great
for landscape plantings. Powdery mildew is a problem in some years, especially
when it affects the fruit. Cane borers occasionally cause damage, but
are usually not present in large numbers. Pruning out infested canes is
the best remedy for home gardeners.
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