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Learn about Elderberries

Elderberry: Bare Root

How to Plant

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Elderberries are planted as a bare root plant. 


Planting Bare Root Plants:


  • Choose a sunny location with well drained soil, with a pH of 5.5-6.5. Elderberry will tolerate a wide range of soil pH as long as the soil is well drained. 
  • Set plants 10-12 feet apart
  • Dig each hole twice the size of the root mass. 
  • If bare roots appear very dry, soak them in warm water before planting or storing.
  • Keep the crowns at soil level. Plant into the hole and back fill with loose soil. Gently press soil in around the root ball. Transplants need good root-to-soil contact. Do not press too hard because that can cause soil compaction and root damage. 
  • Gently water around the root ball to settle the soil and drive out air pockets.
  • After planting be sure to mark the plants with plant labels so you know where they are and what varieties they are.  
  • Mulch to a depth of 2-3 inches to retain moisture and prohibit weed growth.

How to Grow

  • Keep weeds under control during the growing season. Weeds compete with plants for water, space and nutrients. Control them by either cultivating often or use a mulch to prevent their seeds from germinating. Do not cultivate deeper than 2 inches, to avoid disturbing shallow roots.
  • Keep plants well-watered during the growing season, especially during dry spells. Elderberries are shallow rooted. Plants need about 1-2 inches of rain per week during the growing season. It's best to water with a drip or trickle system that delivers water at low pressure at the soil level. If you water with overhead sprinklers, water early in the day so the foliage has time to dry off before evening, to minimize disease problems. Keep the soil moist but not saturated.
  • Do not fertilize newly planted bushes until they have leafed out. Work an organic granular fertilizer into the top 3 inches of soil around each plant.
  • Remove flowers the first year to strengthen plants.
  • Add an organic granular fertilizer early each spring, do not over fertilize.
  • Monitor for pests and diseases. Check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for pest controls recommended for your area.
  • Plants send up many new canes each year, which branch out the second season. Flowers and fruits develop on the tip ends of the current season's growth, especially on the side branches. Older, 3-4 year old wood that have become weak can be removed in late winter to early spring, while plants are dormant.
  •  Leave an equal number of canes 1, 2 and 3-years old. Elderberries are often free of problem pests, which make the shrubs useful as ornamentals.
  • Pick fruit promptly to discourage insects.
  • Mulch after the ground freezes in fall to prevent root damage from alternating freezing and thawing.

Harvest and Preserving Tips

  • Fruits ripen from August to September, for around 2 weeks.
  • Cover bushes with bird netting as fruit ripens. Netting should not touch the berries.  
  • Elderberries are borne in large, flat clusters. Fully ripe elderberries are plump, slightly soft and dull purple in color. 
  • Berries with little, clear to light red juice are not ripe. Uncooked berries have dark purple juice and are astringent and inedible.
  • Once berries turn from green to reddish, then deep purple black, test and squish a few berries. The juice must be very deep red and the berry soft, to be considered ripe enough to use. Berries in the same flower head do not ripen all at the same time, so one finds fully ripe, a few reddish berries and even green ones in the center of the same cluster. When ripe, the entire cluster should be removed, the berries need to be stripped from the cluster for use.
  • Harvest only when the weather is dry and avoid over handling.
  • Pick promptly to avoid insects.
  • Cool fruit promptly after harvesting and store between 32 - 40 degrees F.

Common Disease Problems

Powdery Mildew: This fungus disease occurs on the top of the leaves in humid weather conditions. The leaves appear to have a whitish or greyish surface and may curl. Burpee Recommends: Avoid powdery mildew by providing good air circulation for the plants by good spacing and pruning. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for fungicide recommendations. 

Root Knot Nematodes: Microscopic worm-like pests that cause swellings (galls) to form on roots. Infected plants will produce blackened, malformed or dead buds. Plants may wilt, appear weak or appear stunted. This is a serious problem in many Southern states. Burpee Recommends: Do not plant into infested soil. Try planting ‘Nema-Gone’ marigolds around your plants. 

Root Rots: A number of pathogens cause root rots of seedlings as well as mature roots. Burpee Recommends: Practice crop rotation and do not plant related crops in the same area for several years. Pull up and discard infected plants. Make sure your soil has excellent drainage. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for recommendations. 




Common Pest and Cultural Problems

Borer: The larva is a pale yellow worm. The female lays eggs on the canes early June. The worm hatches and bores into the cane and feeds all season. Larva overwinters in the infested cane, emerging in the spring as an adult. The first symptom is yellow leaves on individual canes in late spring. The cane will die in summer. Burpee Recommends: Remove and destroy infested canes as early as possible. 

Thrips: Thrips are tiny needle-thin insects that are black or straw colored. They suck the juices of plants and attack flower petals, leaves and stems. The plant will have a stippling, discolored flecking or silvering of the leaf surface. Thrips can spread many diseases from plant to plant. Burpee Recommends: Many thrips may be repelled by sheets of aluminum foil spread between rows of plants. Remove weeds from the bed and remove debris from the bed after frost. Check with your Cooperative Extension Service for pest controls. 

Elderberry FAQs

When will I get fruit? You should begin to get berries the second year after planting. If your plants bloom the first year, it is best to remove the flowers to keep the strength in the plant.

What parts of the elderberry plants toxic? The seeds, bark, leaves, flowers and ripened fruit are toxic. Only the ripe berries are edible.

What can I make with elderberries? Although the berries are quite bitter raw, berries can be used in wines, juices, jellies, and jam. They are also excellent in pie when mixed with other fruit like apples

Are elderberries self-pollinating? No, you need at least 2 different varieties to insure good fruit set.

Is there an easy way to remove the green unripe berries from my harvest?  Yes after the berries are removed from their stems put them in a bowl of water. They unripe berries will float and can be easily sorted out.

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