Elderberries have been a medicinal plant and a landscape shrub dating back to prehistoric use (Brobst 2013) and have appeared in a written record in 400 BCE by Hippocrates (Williams 2021). Two main types of elderberries are American elderberry (Sambucus nigra (subsp. canadensis)) and European elderberry (S. nigra). During the last 20 years, elderberries have been trialed and planted as a fruit crop at the University of Missouri. Usage of both fruit and flowers for wine, juice, jelly, colorant, and dietary supplement products was reported to be on the rise (Byers et. al. 2012; Wilson et. al. 2016).
The fruit flavor is slightly sweet combined with tartness and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
There have been reports on toxicities from unripe fruits or even uncooked, ripe elderberry fruits. A journal article (Appenteng et al. 2021) stated that “Cyanogenic glycosides (CNGs) are naturally occurring plant molecules (nitrogenous plant secondary metabolites) which consist of an aglycone and a sugar moiety. Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is released from these compounds following enzymatic hydrolysis causing potential toxicity issues... Concentration levels in all tissues were low and at a level that poses no threat to consumers of fresh and processed AE [American elderberry] products.” This research demonstrates that fully ripened, fresh, and processed American elderberry products are safe to consume. Elderberries are ripe when the berries turn a deep purple, almost black color. To lower exposure to higher concentrations of toxic substances, avoid eating unripe elderberries and cook ripe elderberries before consumption.
A research project on elderberries was conducted from 2014 to 2016 at The Ohio State University South Centers in Piketon, Ohio as a part of a specialty crop block grant from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Several elderberry plots have been installed and maintained at South Centers.
Because most of the elderberry cultivars that have done well in the Midwest are American elderberries (Sambucus nigra (subsp. canadensis)), this publication focuses on them. Growers in Ohio are encouraged to try American elderberries first since they have been shown to be more productive. However, a small number of European elderberries can be planted for trialing.
There are several American elderberry cultivars in the commercial trade. ‘Bob Gordon’ and ‘Wyldewood’ are two top cultivars that Patrick Byers of the University of Missouri highly recommends for the Midwest.
Here are Patrick Byers’ comments on common American elderberry cultivars:
- ‘Adams I,’ and ‘Adams II’ – from New York, with hardy, small berries
- ‘Bob Gordon,’ and ‘Wyldewood’ – adapted to the Midwest, and features abundant crops, and medium berries
- ‘Nova,’ ‘Scotia,’ and ‘Johns’ – from Canada, with hardy, sweet berries
- ‘York’ – from New York, with hardy, large berries
Cultivars of elderberries were planted in 2014 at South Centers. Plants were spaced 6 feet apart with 10 feet between rows. Yield data in 2015 and 2016 are shown in Tables 1 and 2.
Click table to view enlarged image. Click here to download PDF.
Based on preliminary data, ‘Adams,’ ‘Johns,’ and ‘Wyldewood’ performed well. All the canes were pruned to the ground in March 2015. Hence, fruits were all from the new shoots.
Click table to view enlarged image. Click here to download PDF.
The data in these tables should only be used as a reference since they were from 2015 and 2016 in just one location. In addition, the bushes in our trial have not reached full maturity yet. Higher yields are expected in the subsequent years until they reach full maturity in about four to five years.
Elderberries are capable of setting fruits without cross pollination of different cultivars. However, planting multiple cultivars in the same area improves fruit set, and consequently leads to higher yields.
Native wild elderberries are adaptable, as is proven by their growth in a wide range of soil conditions. However, for maximum yield and the highest quality production in commercial or home plantings, consider the following when choosing a site and beginning land preparation:
- Choose a site with full sun.
- Control weeds before planting. Killing perennial weeds before planting is especially important. Herbicides are the most common way to do so, however, other options are available. Make sure to factor in the proper application timing and the potential need for multiple applications to fully control the target perennial weed. Weed elimination needs to occur a season prior to crop establishment.
- Optimize soil drainage. One way to achieve this goal is to grow elderberries in raised beds.
- Ensure ideal soil condition and fertility. Ideal nutrient conditions are a pH level of 5.5–6.5, 50 lb/acre (25 ppm) of phosphorus, and 200–300 lb/acre (100–150 ppm) (Byers et al. 2012) as reported on a soil analysis. Conduct a soil analysis from a certified lab before amending soil and as needed to monitor the soil fertility. If soil test results call for it, amend the soil with composted organic material to help condition the soil and improve its water and nutrient-holding capacity.
The above recommendations will help reduce labor and chemical costs in the long run.
Elderberry planting rows are typically spaced 10–12 feet apart to accommodate machinery for pest management, pruning, and fruit harvesting. The plant spacing within each row is typically 4–5 feet on center. Elderberry plants sucker freely and will form a solid hedge within two to three years.
During the first year of planting, the flower cymes (the entire flower head containing many small flowers) should be removed to encourage root and plant growth. A light crop is expected during the second year. A full crop should be expected during the third or fourth year.
Elderberries are easy to propagate. Hardwood, softwood, and root cuttings are all effective ways to propagate elderberries. Growers can collect cuttings, two to four nodes in length, of the previous season’s growth, when canes are still dormant. February and March are typically suitable for dormant cane collection. Make sure to collect cuttings that are free of insect, disease, and cold damage. Cuttings can be rooted immediately in a sterile commercial potting mix. Hardwood cuttings can be stored in a refrigerator for several weeks for later rooting. The use of rooting hormone is optional. The effect of dipping the basal end of the cutting in rooting hormone was not significant when used for propagation for the plantings at South Centers.
Hardwood cuttings behave like hardwood grape cuttings, meaning that the storage and planting instructions for cuttings are similar. Keep freshly planted cuttings moist and warm. Buds will break before the cuttings root. Shoots will grow for several weeks while good rooting takes about four to six weeks.
Propagation by root cuttings (dividing plants that naturally produce new shoots from their roots by digging them up) can also be used to propagate elderberries. Root cuttings can be dug when the ground is not frozen and the plants are still dormant. These conditions are typically found in late March or April. Several plants can be propagated from one root cutting.
Softwood cuttings, or herbaceous cuttings taken during the growing season, can also propagate elderberry plants. Like hardwood cuttings, softwood cuttings can be cut to a length with two to four nodes and placed into sterile potting mix with at least one node below the surface of the media. Keep softwood cuttings moist in an intermittent misting system until cuttings are well rooted. Softwood cuttings are much more sensitive to desiccation, so greater care to keep them moist must be taken.
Conduct a soil analysis at the time of land preparation to understand its baseline fertility and then properly amend the soil before planting. While we have a basic understanding of the ideal nutrient conditions for elderberries (pH level of 5.5–6.5, 50 lb/acre (25 ppm) of phosphorus, and 200–300 lb/acre (100–150 ppm) of potassium), standard fertilizer recommendations for nitrogen are still being developed for elderberries. The University of Missouri instructs, “Do not apply nitrogen at planting time; a light application (no more than 10 pounds per acre) of nitrogen may be made 4–8 weeks after planting.” This translates to .23 lb per 1,000 square feet. Furthermore, the University of Missouri recommends, “Mature bearing elderberry plantings benefit from 60 to 80 pounds of nitrogen for a 4 feet by 12 feet spacing per acre annually, applied as growth begins.” Sixty to 80 pounds per acre translates into 1.4 to 1.8 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
Elderberries are sensitive to drought stress. Supplemental irrigation could be needed, especially during the hot and dry summer months. Plants need 1 to 2 inches of water per week is needed. Mulch can be used to conserve water. However, mulch used should allow new shoots from the roots and the crown. Hence, landscape fabric may not be a suitable material. Pine bark, wood chips, and straw are examples of acceptable mulches.
For American elderberries, cutting all stems to the ground with a lopper or a sickle-bar cutter (a three-point tractor attachment for larger commercial plantings) in March is the easiest and most efficient way to prune. With this approach, elderberry plants will bloom and set fruit on new wood. This results in fruits maturing with more consistency for more efficient harvesting and processing. In addition, removal of the plant material better manages diseases and insects. We have used this pruning method successfully in our trials at CFAES South Centers at Piketon.
Note: This pruning strategy is not recommended for European elderberry cultivars. If this pruning is used for any European elderberry cultivars, no fruit will be produced because European elderberry plants produce fruits on stems from the previous year’s growth. Therefore, European elderberry stems must be maintained until flowering and fruiting is complete.
Insects and Diseases
Japanese beetles have been observed as a major pest in our trial plots. Japanese beetles feed on the flowers and leaves of elderberries. A 15% defoliation threshold has been suggested for berry crops by the University of Wisconsin (Guédot 2019). Large capacity mass trapping systems for Japanese beetles were found to be effective in keeping the damage below this threshold for elderberry orchards in Missouri (Dudenhoeffer and Quinn 2018). For more information on Japanese beetle control on fruit crops, see the Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide (ag.purdue.edu/department/hla/extension/_docs/id-465.pdf).
Spotted wing drosophila (SWD) has been reported as a problem in Missouri. As SWD is endemic on other fruit crops in Ohio, it will also likely become a significant problem for elderberries. SWD lay eggs inside the ripening fruit. This has the greatest consequences for fresh market fruit, less so for fruit that will be immediately frozen and processed. For more information on SWD control on fruit crops, see the Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide (ag.purdue.edu/department/hla/extension/_docs/id-465.pdf).
Little is known about diseases in elderberries. A bacterial leaf spot and a rust disease have been reported in Missouri (Byers et al. 2012). Little information is available on control.
Birds can consume a lot of fruits in an elderberry planting. Bird netting, though expensive and time consuming to install, is a highly effective way to reduce bird depredation.
Harvest and Marketing
A variety of elderberry products are created and sold in the United States: seeds, cuttings, plants in pots, fresh and frozen elderberries, dried flowers, wine, juice, concentrate, extract, syrup, jelly, jam, food colorants, vinegar, fudge, barbeque sauces, salad dressing, carbonated beverages, cordials, juice blends, yogurt, and pie (Byers et al. 2012). Freeze-dried elderberries are also available for sale in Ohio.
Growers should work closely with their prospective buyers to determine the optimum harvest parameters (their preferred level of ripeness). Specific harvest parameters have not been well established for individual products, especially elderberry juice for wines. Typical elderberry juice characteristics include total soluble solids levels of 11–12°Brix, juice pH of 4.5–5.0, and juice titratable acidity in terms of malic acid of 0.60–0.70 g/100 ml (Byers et al. 2012).
Whole fruit clusters or cymes are typically harvested. To more easily separate fruits from the fruit stems, the fruit cluster or cymes should be frozen first and then passed through a screening device, such as a grape de-stemmer.
Elderberries are considered a superfood due to their elevated levels of antioxidants, which are reported to boost immunity. Including this information is a good marketing strategy because of increased consumer knowledge of elderberries in recent years. Note that marketing statements on food labels touting health benefits must be based upon research and must be FDA approved.
Fresh market elderberries are not a common product, but they can be sold in combination with information on how to use the berries and preserve them for longer term use at home. For instance, some consumers find destemming as a barrier to purchasing elderberries, however, there are many methods for destemming, including freezing the berries beforehand. Also, because of their slightly bitter aftertaste, reliable recipes for jellies, jams, and other preserves help consumers taste the fruit’s more positive attributes.
The focus for direct marketing farms should be selling fresh, frozen, or freeze-dried berries. If saleable products are made from the berries, please reference information on Ohio cottage food laws available at Ohio State University Extension or the Ohio Department of Agriculture to make sure products are produced and sold in a lawful manner.
Although local markets are still developing, elderberries, especially the American cultivars, are gaining interest as a suitable alternative cash crop for farmers in Ohio. Potential growers are encouraged to do their homework in identifying buyers before they install large plantings.
The authors would like to thank the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their financial support of our “super fruit” research project at South Centers through a specialty crop block grant from 2014 to 2016. Our sincere appreciation also goes to Patrick Byers of the University of Missouri for supplying elderberry cuttings of ‘Bob Gordon’ and ‘Wyldewood’ cultivars and providing expert advice on elderberry production and marketing.
Appenteng, M.K., R. Krueger, M.C. Johnson, H. Ingold, R. Bell, A.L. Thomas, and C.M. Greenlief. 2021. “Cyanogenic Glycoside Analysis in American Elderberry.” Molecules. Volume 26: 1384.
Brobst, Joyce. 2013. The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry. Kirtland, Ohio: The Herb Society of America.
Byers, P. L., A. L. Thomas, M. A. Gold, M. Cernusca, and L. D. Godsey. 2012. “Growing and Marketing Elderberries in Missouri” (AF1017-2012). Agroforestry In Action, University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry.
Dudenhoeffer, A., Quinn, J. 2018. “Mass Trapping as an Organic Management Option for the Japanese Beetle on Farms.” Integrated Pest Management, University of Missouri.
Guédot, C. 2019. “Japanese Beetles are Back!” University of Wisconsin Fruit Program.
Williams, M. 2021. “Plant of the Month: Elderberry.” JSTOR Daily. November 17, 2021.
Wilson, R., Nickerson, G., Fried, D., Hayden, J., Muase, G, Hardie, T. 2016. Growing Elderberries: A Production Manual and Enterprise Viability Guide for Vermont and the Northeast. University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture, University of Vermont Extension.