Planting Bare Root Elderberries in the Home Garden

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Are you ready to start growing elderberry at home? The fruit from these large shrubs has long been used in medicine and food. These native plants also provide visual appeal and wildlife habitat.

a metal bowl filled with dark purple elderberries sitting on some grass

Planting bare root elderberries is not hard and if you follow these steps, you will soon have an abundant berry harvest right from your own backyard. Jump start your journey to home grown syrup and jelly by following these tips!

American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) are the two species of elderberry that are commonly grown in home gardens in the United States. If you are hoping to harvest berries for making syrups and jams, you should choose an American elderberry variety.

American Elderberry

Elderberry bushes grown for their fruit are most commonly American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). This species is native to North America and can be found growing wild in moist soils at forest edges.

American elderberry grows five to ten feet tall. It has a wide structure and gray stems with white centers. Stems emerge from the base of the plant and develop an arched, spreading pattern.

Large clusters of white flowers bloom from June to July. Purple or black berries develop in late summer and ripen in September.

Common American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) Varieties

  • Adams Elderberry: White blooms, small to medium sized purple, firm fruit, and glossy green foliage. Cold hardy. Will pollinate with any other elderberry variety. Zones 3-9. 2-3 years to bear. Mature size 6-10′ tall.
  • Johns Elderberry: White blooms, medium to large sized purple, firm fruit, and glossy green foliage. Cold hardy. Will pollinate with any other elderberry variety. Zones 3-9. 2-3 years to bear. Mature size 6-10′ tall.
  • Nova Elderberry: White blooms, large sized purple, soft fruit, and light green foliage. Cold hardy. Will pollinate with any other elderberry variety. Zones 4-8. 2-3 years to bear. Mature size 6-10′ tall.
  • Ranch Elderberry: White blooms, small sized black, firm fruit, and light green foliage. Cold hardy. Best pollinators are Nova or York. Zones 3-9. 2-3 Years to bear. Mature size 5-6′ tall.
  • Wild Michigan Elderberry: White blooms, small sized black, firm fruit, and light green foliage. Cold hardy. Will pollinate with any other elderberry variety. Zones 3-9. 2-3 years to bear. Mature size 8-10′ tall.
  • York Elderberry: White blooms, medium to large sized purple, soft fruit and light green foliage. Cold hardy. Will pollinate with any other elderberry variety. Zones 4-9. 2-3 years to bear. Mature size 6-10′ tall.

European Elderberry

Elderberry shrubs grown for ornamental purposes are most commonly European elderberry (Sambucus nigra). European elderberry is more tree-like than American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), and less cold hardy. Blooms are showy and leaves can be yellow or purple.

Where to Buy Bare Root Elderberry

The easiest way to get bare root elderberry plants is by ordering them from a reputable nursery. Choosing a good nursery is just as important as choosing the right variety.

Spring is the best time to plant bare root elderberry plants, and many popular varieties sell out quickly. It’s best to order in late winter and specify a shipping date in early to late spring after the ground has thawed.

Here’s a list of trusted nurseries that ship bare root plants to your door.

Choosing the Right Planting Site

Before planting bare root elderberries, it’s important to pick the right location. Choosing a site that provides everything your elderberry plant needs to be productive will help you harvest berries for years to come. Good drainage and plenty of sunlight are important for maximum productivity.

roots of an elderberry plant

Soils

Elderberries prefer well-drained soil with a good amount of organic matter. Wet soils that do not drain are not preferred by elderberries.

Elderberries need good soil with organic matter to grow well. If your soil is not ideal, you can prepare a planting site by working in 3-4 inches of compost to the topsoil.

It is important to prepare your planting site before you put the elderberries in the ground, as they have shallow roots and won’t tolerate working anything into the soil after planting.

Sun

Elderberries will be most productive when they are in full sun. They will grow in partial shade, but they won’t get as many flowers and berries.

Planting Bare Root Elderberries: Step by Step Instructions

  1. Plant your bare root elderberries as soon as possible after receiving them in the mail. You don’t want the roots to dry out before planting.
  2. Prepare your planting site by working 2-3 inches of compost into the soil and removing any grass or weeds from the planting area.
  3. Open the box and carefully remove your bare root elderberry plant. Most nurseries wrap the bare roots in wet newspaper and then plastic to keep them wet in shipping. Carefully remove the plastic around the roots. Take caution not to damage the roots.
  4. Dig a wide, shallow hole. Make it deep enough to plant the elderberries in the ground at the same depth as they were planted at the nursery. You should be able to see a mark just above the roots where the soil level was.
  5. Spread out the roots in the planting hole so they are reaching out to the side of the hole. You want to establish a good base so your elderberry plant will be supported.
  6. Back-fill the hole with the compost rich soil up to the ground level.
  7. Water the area well to set the soil around the roots.
  8. Mulch with wood chips or apply landscape fabric around the base of the plant to prevent weeds and hold in soil moisture.
bare root elderberry plants planted near a stream

Elderberry Maintenance

Elderberries are fairly low maintenance once they are established. Yearly pruning and watering in dry weather are all that are required for mature plants after they become established.

Watering

Water your elderberry plants well the first year as they establish roots. It’s important that the roots don’t dry out while they are establishing in their new location the first season.

Pruning for Productivity

Elderberries require pruning to encourage productivity. In early spring or late winter, remove any dead or weak stems. Shorten stems by about 1/3 and shape as desired. Elderberry blooms form on the current year’s new canes, so pruning each year encourages new shoots to form.

Harvesting and Preserving Elderberries

Take caution when harvesting elderberries for food or medicine. Leaves, stems, roots, and unripe berries can make people and livestock very sick if consumed. Ripe elderberries are mildly toxic and can cause illness if eaten raw. Berries should be cooked or dried to make them safe for consumption.

Elderberries can be juiced after cooking and made into elderberry syrup, juice, wine, jelly, or pie filling. Elderberry flowers are also edible. Flowers are frequently included in tinctures and syrups.

Elderberry fruit is high in vitamin C, phosphorus, potassium, and iron. It is also rich in antioxidants. Buy some bare-root plants this spring and start growing this nutritious fruit in your home garden!

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pinnable image of elderberries and elderberry bushes

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8 Comments

  1. We have some wild elderberry, but I would like to grow some in our garden as well. Thanks for the info!

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