Growing, Harvesting, and Storing Elderberries
It is that time again. The harvest season has begun and the beautiful elderberries hang in heavy bushels from the branches of the elderberry tree. Elderflowers and elderberries have been used for centuries as delicious and curative drinks. It was popular in the 1700s to offer someone entering your home a small glass of elderberry syrup mixed with a bit of brandy and spices during the cooler months of the year. Warm elderberry and elderflower drinks would take the chill out and help ward off illnesses in the changing seasons.
Elderberry bushes are relatively easy to grow and will tolerate a wide variety of conditions. However, the most ideal conditions for elderberries to grow in are rich, moist, and slightly acidic soils. Elderberries do best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Note* We grew our elderberry bushes in rocky clay soil amended with some homemade compost, and they have done amazing. So, that is proof that they don't need ideal conditions to produce abundant fruit.* If you live in a very hot climate, you might want to consider some partial shade to avoid the elderberry getting scorched by the sun. You will also want to make sure that the area where you plant your bushes does not become overly soggy as elderberry bushes are susceptible to root rot.
When planting your elderberry bushes, make sure to allow for cross-pollination. Therefore, two or more cultivars should be planted near each other. They will do best when planted approximately 3-6 ft apart, in rows that are about 10ft apart. Make sure to do your elderberry planting early in the spring when the new growth in starting and the ground has thawed. In the first year after planting, your elderberry bushes will need consistent watering. After they have established themselves, they are much more adaptable and tolerant to drought. Make sure to plan for enough room, as elderberry bushes get quite large. Depending on the variety, they can grow anywhere from 10-20ft, and the branches will bend and stretch out when the fruit bushels get heavy in August. You can prune your elderberry bush after the first 2 years of growth to regulate the size of your elderberry bush.
Dig your hole slightly wider than the roots and 2 inches deeper than plant depth.
Add some organic compost materials to the hole around your plant to give it some good nutrients.
Drop in your elderberry plant, spread the roots out, backfill your dirt, gently stomp the dirt around the plant with your foot to secure in place and get rid of air pockets.
Water the elderberry bushes with consistency in the first year.
Add a layer of mulch or shredded leaves around the base of your plant. Elderberries have very shallow roots and some types of mulching help to retain the water.
For fruit production, make sure you have two cross-pollinating varieties within 50 feet (60 ft max) of one another.
You need two different varieties of elderberries from the same breed of elderberry to get fruit.
There are two main species of elderberry bush: Sambucus Nigra and Sambucus Canadensis . (European and American Elderberry)
Growing elderberry bushes from cuttings off another elderberry bush:
You can harvest a softwood cutting from an elderberry bush and turn it into a whole new plant. You want your cutting to be softwood with new growth that is just at the edge of maturity. Take your softwood cuttings in early spring when the plant is just breaking from its winter dormancy. Cut the branch into 4- to 6-inch segments, to get multiple cuttings from one branch. Pinch off all the leaves from the lower two-thirds of the cutting, while leaving one set of leaves at the top. You can place your cuttings either in a jar of water or in soil, cut side down. Mist the cutting every few days, and roots should begin to form by week eight. Once you have a good set of roots, you are ready to plant your elderberry in the ground.
In the first two years of growth, allow your elderberry bush to grow wildly. On year three, you can begin to prune in the spring or fall to contain the size of your elderberry bush.
How to harvest & store elderberries:
Your elderberry bush will go through a journey of producing elderflowers, and then will spring forth green little berries. You will know that the berries are ready to harvest when they have become a rich purple black color and the stems are a beautiful maroon shade.
*If you are foraging, we careful not to confuse elderberries with pokeberries. Pokeberries are toxic and are to be avoided. Some types of elderberries are toxic when raw, so cooking is always highly recommended before consuming.*
When your berries become rich in color, you will want to begin harvesting before the birds steal them all. The easiest method is to cut the whole elderberry bushel by the stem and place into a paper bag. Once you have filled your bag, place it in the freezer or a cooler with ice. This makes it much easier to knock all the berries off the stems. Once frozen, simply shake your stems and the elderberries will begin to fall right off. Pick out any green elderberries or debris. At this point you can rinse your elderberries If you so desire. After they are rinsed, you can either place them back into the freezer in freezer bags, begin the process of dehydrating or freeze drying them, or you can begin to turn them into syrup, jellies, wine, jam, etc. If you dehydrate your elderberries, you can store them in bags or jars in the pantry and use as needed. Dehydrated elderberries have a shelf life of approximately one year on the shelf. You can extend this time by vacuum sealing your lids. Elderberries left in the freezer will be best to use within 6-8 months.