Elderberry: elderflower, varieties & propagation

Anika
Anika
Anika
Anika

I studied agricultural sciences and have always preferred spending my free time outdoors. Apart for my enthusiasm for gardening and agriculture, I love taking photos and rarely leave home without my camera. Whether it is landscapes, blossoms or wildlife, I can usually find a perfect shot that captures the beauty of nature.

Favourite fruit: strawberries, blueberries, plums
Favourite vegetables: radishes, tomatoes, pumpkin

When do elderflowers blossom? What varieties of the elderberry bush are there? How do you care for and propagate elder trees? Here are our top tips and tricks.

Blossom of elderberry bush
Elderflowers appear between the end of May and June [Photo: Ninelro/ Shutterstock.com]

As early as the Middle Ages, elderberry was a valued food and a medicinal remedy. Out of respect for the treasured plant, men took off their hats when they passed an elder tree. And even today, elder is still hugely popular for its beautiful elderflower blossoms and berries and their many different uses.

Origin and characteristics of elder

Elder (Sambucus), or elderberry, is a genus of plants in the moschatel family (Adoxaceae). There are about 40 different species worldwide, spread from the temperate zones of the north to the tropical zones of the southern hemisphere. There are three elderberry species native to the UK, the most common of which is the black elder (Sambucus nigra), also referred to as elderberry or European elder.

Elderberry is a densely branched, round-crowned, fast-growing woody plant with overhanging branches. Depending on the location and variety, elder grows into a large bushy shrub or small tree, reaching a height of about six to ten metres and a maximum width of four metres if not pruned regularly.

The bark of the young elderberry shrub is smooth and light beige to slightly grey. As the elder matures, a clearly visible layer of cork forms on the trunk and thick branches. The elderberry leaves are pinnate (feather-shaped) with five to seven toothed leaflets. The leaflets are arranged opposite one another with one single leaflet at the tip. Elderberry tends to sprout at the end of February to the beginning of March.

Tall and wide elderberry bush covered in blossom
Depending on the location and variety, the elder can grow into a large shrub

Elderflowers are the sign of early summer. The numerous small, five-petalled flowers are bunched close together in broad umbrella panicles. These blossoms are a valuable source of food for insects. If they are not harvested for processing into elderflower cordial, purple-black, round elderberries form from the pollinated flowers in late summer.

Botanically, elderberries are drupes that ripen at the end of September and into October, at which point they can be harvested and processed. Remember, though, that the fruits are an abundant source of food for birds, so be sure to leave plenty of fruit for your chirping garden wildlife!

Elder blossoms: When do elderflowers bloom?

Dense, white elderflowers usually blossom in June. In ideal climates, flowering sometimes begins as early as May.

Elder species and varieties

Along with the black elderberry, the red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa) and the dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus) are also native to the UK. Within these species there are several different varieties that each differ in flower and leaf colour, leaf shape, growth height and fruit size.

Black elderberry

  • ′Haschberg′: Large-fruited variety; broad growth; fragrant and insect-friendly flowers; 3-5m high; used in fruit cultivation.
  • ′Black Beauty′: Uniquely eye-catching; brown-red, glossy foliage; pink-white, lemon-scented flowers; purple-black fruits; up to 3m high.
  • ′Black Lace′: Foliage initially green-red, later dark red and slightly glossy; serrated leaves; pink buds turn to pink-white flowers scented with lemon; juicy, black fruits; 2-3.5m tall.
  • ′Golden Tower′: Yellow-leaved columnar elder; tall, narrow growth; yellow-green foliage, deeply incised leaf; white, flower clusters; 1.5-2.5m tall; also suitable as a potted plant.
  • ′Black Tower′: Red-leaved elder; upright, narrow growth; black-red, glossy leaves; pink-white flowers with lemon fragrance; attracts butterflies; violet-black fruits; up to 2m high.
  • ′Purpurea′: Red-leaved elder; bushy growth; dark red foliage, turns green again towards autumn; white flowers; 3-5m tall.
  • ′Marginata′: White variegated foliage; sunburn-prone in very sun-exposed places.
Black lace elder with dark red leaves and pink blossoms
The black elderberry ′Black Lace′ has uniquely striking dark red leaves and pink-white flowers [Photo: Diana Taliun/ Shutterstock.com]

Red elderberry

The red-berried elder, also called the red elderberry is less common than the black elderberry. The leaves look very similar to that of the black elderberry, but are usually made up of fewer leaflets. As the name suggests, the fruits turn red when ripe.

  • ′Sutherland Gold′: Fern-leaved golden elder; upright, bushy growth; golden-yellow shining foliage; flowers from end of April to end of May; white flowers; red fruits; 2-3m tall.
  • ′Plumosa′: strongly incised leaves; red fruits; 2-3m tall.
  • ′Plumosa Aurea′: fern-leaved elderberry; bushy growth; leaves strongly incised; foliage first purple, then yellow; red fruits; 2-3m tall.

Dwarf elder

The dwarf elder or dwarf elderberry is an herbaceous species that only reaches a height of about two metres, unlike the taller shrub elderberry species. Its white to light pink flowers bloom between June and July and have an intense fragrance. The leaves of the dwarf elderberry are larger than those of the red and black species. They grow to about 20 centimetres long and are roughly toothed.

Dark elderberries and long leaves of dwarf elder plant
The leaves of the dwarf elder are strikingly long [Photo: Furiarossa/ Shutterstock.com]

Tips for planting elderberries in the garden and in pots

Elderberry feels at home in a sunny, semi-shady or shady location. It is a very undemanding plant and thrives in almost any soil. However, it prefers moist, humus-rich and chalky soils. The best time to plant your elder is in autumn or at the beginning of spring. Read our article on planting elderberry for more information and practical tips.

Elder care

The elderberry is a very low-maintenance and undemanding shrub. It does not require a huge amount of care but here are a few things to bear in mind.

Watering elderberries

After planting, water your elderberry regularly to encourage strong root development and healthy growth. More mature plants, however, hardly need watering at all, and actually survive long periods of drought without any problems.

Fertilising elderberry

When planting an elderberry, enrich the soil in the planting hole with compost or a slow-release fertiliser, such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food. Once well established, the elderberry shrub does not need any further fertilisation.

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Regular pruning is necessary to keep the elder bush in shape and to avoid the shrub aging quickly. Find out how to do this in our article on elderberry pruning.

Black elderberry fruits ready to harvest
The ripe fruits of the black elderberry can be harvested and processed from the end of September [Photo: Daniella Danilejko/ Shutterstock.com]

Elderberry propagation

There are several different ways to propagate elderberry. Sowing elderberry seeds is very time-consuming and tedious. Cuttings or wood cuttings, on the other hand, are much simpler.

To propagate elderberry from cuttings, cut shoots from the plant at the end of June. Each shoot should be 10 to 15 cm long, have at least one pair of leaves at the top and already be slightly woody at the lower end. Remove all the leaves and flower buds from the shoots, except for the leaves at the top, and then place the cuttings about three centimetres deep in a container with potting soil. Our peat-free Plantura Organic Herb & Seeding Compost is ideal for this. Place the containers in a bright location, out of direct sunlight and keep the soil moist so that the cuttings can form roots and grow.

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Propagating elderberry from wood cuttings is a similar process. However, it is best to take elderberry wood cuttings in late autumn or winter when the elder bush is in winter dormancy. Select some shoots that have a few buds at the top, and cut them ten centimetres long. Place the cuttings deeper into the soil than you would normal cuttings, and allow three centimetres to protrude from the soil. Overwinter the cuttings in a light, frost-free place and keep the soil moist.

Woody branch of elder shrub
Elderberry can be propagated by cuttings or wood cuttings [Photo: Natalia Baran/ Shutterstock.com]

Is elderberry poisonous?

All three elder species mentioned here are poisonous. Parts of the plants contain poisonous blue acid glycosides such as sambunigrin. These substances are released as gas when the leaves are crushed or the shoots are injured. This poisonous gas can cause headaches, diarrhoea and vomiting, among other things.

The black and red elderberries are considered to be slightly poisonous; the red elderberry has a higher content of poisonous substances than the black. While the dwarf elderberry is considered the most poisonous and should not be consumed under any circumstances. As such, it is important not to confuse the elderberry species before harvesting their fruits.

While elderflowers can be processed into tasty treats, like elderflower cordial, and then consumed straight away, ripe elderberries must first be heated before they can be processed and consumed. Do not eat unripe or raw fruits as they are toxic.

Note: The seeds in the fruits of the red elderberry are still toxic even after exposure to heat and must be removed before consumption.

Elder bush with red elderberries
The seeds of the red elderberry fruits are still poisonous even after cooking [Photo: Hivaka/ Shutterstock.com]

Has this sparked your curiosity? To learn more about the many uses of elderberry, read our article on harvesting and using elderflower and elderberries.

Humans are not the only ones to enjoy elderberries: birds do too. Read our article on native shrubs for birds to discover what other plants you can use to make your garden bird friendly.

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