Elderberries: Easy to Grow Medicine

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By Guy K. Ames, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

I can hardly think of a perennial fruit easier to grow than elderberries. And I can hardly think of a food item with a stronger claim to health benefits. Coupling the ease of growing with this fruit’s new popularity as an effective medicine, this could be an opportune time for growers to consider establishing an elderberry planting for their family, or perhaps, more ambitiously, a commercial venture.

Elderberry is native from Texas to Maine—an indirect indicator of its ease of culture. It seems to thrive in a wide variety of soils and tolerates both summer’s heat and sub-zero winters. I grow elderberries for their fruit and as a nursery plant to sell. I stick unrooted hardwood cuttings into the soil in late February or March. Many of these sticks will grow into branched plants with fruit in one growing season! I can think of no other perennial fruit that can do that.

Elderberry bush

Elderberry bush.

As witnessed by surging sales of elderberry products, the general public seems to have absorbed this relatively new medical information. Although perhaps they were predisposed to believe this given the elderberry’s long-standing reputation as an herbal medicine. The most recent scientific research published in March 2019 reveals some of the specific ways that elderberries fight against the influenza virus, a type of corona virus. There is absolutely no direct evidence of elderberry’s possible efficacy specifically against the COVID-19 virus. However, one could guess that the world’s current anxiety over Covid-19 will stimulate sales even further.

Choosing Elderberry Cultivars

As I said at the outset, I can think of few fruits easier to grow than the elderberry. In fact, you might be able to harvest what you want from a wild patch and not have to bother growing them at all! They often pop up at the edges of fields and disturbed sites. One Arkansas wine company, I’ve heard, collects the necessary volume of berries for their elderberry wine from flood plains along the Arkansas River. This makes sense because the periodic disturbance of floods would open up stretches of the bank to sun. Elderberries are opportunistic and will take advantage of a sudden change in its environment.

But if you’re going to grow your own and not forage for them, you might as well start with an improved cultivar with some evidence of high yields and high quality. Up until about 20 years ago, the only available cultivars were from the Northeast and Canada; e.g., Adams, Kent, Johns, Nova, and Scotia. More recently Patrick Byers of the University of Missouri—with encouragement from long-time elderberry grower and advocate Terry Durham—collected, tested, and released two cultivars: ‘Bob Gordon’ and ‘Wyldewood.’ ‘Bob Gordon’ was found wild in Missouri and named after the collector. ‘Wyldewood’ was found by Jack Millican in Oklahoma. In the Midwest climate, ‘Wyldewood’ and ‘Bob Gordon’ outperformed the older elderberry cultivars in trials at different research sites in Missouri. So, depending on where you’re growing, you might want to choose different cultivars.

Elderberry Pests

Elderberries do have a few pests. Powdery mildew can compromise photosynthesis. Eriophyid mites can distort and crinkle the foliage. And I learned by experience that the elderberry sawfly larvae can defoliate a patch in a very short time. Birds, of course, can also be problematic by feeding on the berries. But like most crops, especially perennial crops that stay in the same place for years, weeds are probably the biggest threat to yields. Still, there are solutions to all these problems and they are discussed in an excellent, comprehensive University of Missouri bulletin, Growing and Marketing Elderberries in Missouri.

Since this publication is available in its entirety online at the link provided, and I doubt that I can improve on this information, I see little benefit to you or me in belaboring this topic. I will, however, share this short personal postscript: the fragrant aroma of a hedge of blooming elderberries is one of my favorite scents in the whole world. It never fails to remind me of my dear, sweet, perfumed and powdered grandmother Esther King.

Questions About Elderberries?

Contact Guy with your questions about elderberries or other tree fruit! Call 800-346-9140 or email askanag@ncat.org.

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.