Pruning elderberry: how & when to prune a Sambucus plant


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
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When is the best time to prune Sambucus and how do you go about shaping your elderberry tree? Read below to find the best tips on pruning elderberry bushes.

White elderflowers blossoming
Elderberry can be pruned back annually without much a of a reduction in blossoms

Sambucus, known commonly as elderberry or elder, is a fast-growing woody plant with a growth rate of 50 to 70 centimetres per year. When left unpruned, elderberry develops into an unruly bush within just a few years and can even reach heights of up to seven metres. To keep elderberry bushes in shape and to ensure lush flowering and fruiting, prune back this vigorous shrub annually. Like most shrubs, you should not begin annual pruning of elderberry until the year after they have been planted. In nature, elder usually grows as a shrub, though with regular pruning elderberries can be shaped and trained into a tree. Discover exactly how to prune and shape elderberries, as well as the best times to do so in this article.

Read our in-depth article on elderberry to find more information from planting to care and propagation to different elderberry species and varieties.

When to prune sambucus

The best time to prune elderberries is in autumn. However, you should wait until October, after elderberries have been harvested, before cutting your elder bush back. Alternatively, you can prune back your elderberry bushes and trees between the end of January and the beginning of March.

Sambucus pruning: how to go about it

As a rule of thumb when pruning elderberries, leave year-old shoots untouched and remove older wood. To differentiate between old and new shoots: year-old shoots are thin and have smooth, light grey bark, while branches over two years old are thicker with a brownish, cracked and corked bark.

Young elder tree branch sprouting new leaves
Never prune an elderberry’s year old wood [Photo: dadalia/]

Pruning elderberry for maintenance and thinning out

In autumn, cut back mature shoots (the shoots that bore fruit). For lush elderflowers and an abundant elderberry harvest next season, make sure, as mentioned above, to avoid pruning young branches. When deciding on the shoots that will flower next year, select about 10 to 12 well-developed year-old shoots that reach as far down the plant’s base as possible. This is important so that all shoots are evenly supplied with nutrients. If you notice later on in the spring, that a shoot is no longer growing where you like it to or is not developing well, it can still be easily removed.

Sambucus topiary

To achieve a beautifully shaped elderberry bush, the central shoot should remain the longest. Shorten the surrounding main shoots so that the upper part forms a slight conical shape.

As an alternative to the classic shrub form, a young elderberry can also be grown into a standard tree. An elderberry tree not only saves space but also makes a great decorative feature in your garden. Choose a strong shoot that has grown as straight as possible as the future trunk of your elder tree and support it with a wooden stake that is hammered into the ground. Shorten the tip of the main central shoot a little. Below the cut, there should be about five dormant bud plants, from which new shoots will sprout in spring and later form the tree crown. You can spot or feel the bud systems as slight bulges on the shoot. Cut off all side shoots below these buds, as close to the central shoot as possible. In the second year, cut back the five or so crown shoots so that about four buds remain per shoot. From the third year onwards, prune the crown back and thin out as described above. Make sure to remove competing shoots from the trunk whenever they appear to encourage good development.

elderberry shaped into stadard tree form
Cultivating elderberry as a standard tree, which is common in orchards, saves space [Photo: Food Impressions/]

The elderberry is a very versatile plant. It not only looks stunning as a decorative shrub with its creamy white elderflowers, but its berries also provide a valuable source of food for birds. If you are thinking about planting Sambucus in your garden, find everything you need to know in our article on planting elderberry.

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