Determine the best way for you to start growing American elderberries.
by Heather Wilson
January 3, 2024
One of the earliest known uses for elderberry were fire tubes. Native Americans would hollow out the elder canes and blow through them to add oxygen to their fires. A very important task then. Lore of elderberries on farmsteads has been passed down through generations across the world. In recent years of elderberry and its benefits becoming more widely known, we have seen a large increase in available elderberry products. However, most of those elderberries are imported from across the world, they are not coming from the United States.
River Hills Harvest owner, Terry Durham, was one of the first to bring American elderberries into commercial production in the United States. Through the years we have learned they contain more antioxidants than other elderberries across the globe, and also don’t require boiling to consume. Since, we grow only American elderberries and have helped numerous other US farmers get started on their own elderberry adventures. Not just farmers, but gardeners, homesteaders, city dwellers and more.
As the world of American elderberry is relatively new to us, we often get folks who ask about growing seeds, or how to best start growing their own elderberries. This blog should help clear up any confusion as well as help you gain the confidence to take the leap and plant your own!
American elderberries, or Sambucus canadensis are available from a number of growers throughout the US these days. Personally, I don't trust many of the big box stores when it comes to knowing anything about selling elderberries. I can only assume what they offer has been imported, and I'd rather grow a native. Since the US selections of elderberries were once selected from the wild themselves, any one you buy will be a native to the US. And isn't it better to know the farm your plants were taken care of and came from?
Local growers will offer elderberries in different stages of growth throughout the year. The price point and effort you want to put forth can help determine which type you want to start with. Here are the various ways you can find American elderberry plants; we'll start at the beginning of the year in mid-winter.
Dormant Hardwood Cuttings
Dormant hardwood cuttings are available usually in mid-winter and are taken from the plants when they have reached full dormancy. For tips on making and planting cuttings, visit our RESOURCES page of the website. Insert shameless plug: you can order cuttings from our website usually between October and February (That’s right now! Order here.). Dormant hardwood cuttings are sticks. Yep, just sticks with 2 nodes on them, they are alive though! They are happiest being planted in cold weather, where they can put their energy into growing roots instead of shooting out leaves. In rank, dormant hardwood cuttings are the most difficult of the options to get established, but the price point is the lowest.
The easiest way to get them established is to plant them directly in the soil outside. You may choose to start them in a potting mix or pots in a covered location to transfer later. Starting in water and trying to transfer them to soil I have found to be difficult in all plants, not just elderberries. Also, if they are in water, they'll likely leaf out first before making adequate roots. It's easy to have success with dormant hardwood cuttings, just follow the advice of those before us. There are a number of elderberry growing groups on Facebook, as well, you can join our River Hills Harvest Elderberry Growers group there too.
Next you can find rooted cuttings later in the year, which are small cuttings that have established roots and have started to leaf out at the top. Personally, I think these are the most darling looking plants ever. They are easy to get started and can be planted in spring. However, be advised that most of these have been very well taken care of and will come in a small pot with a light potting mix. This makes them susceptible to drying out very quickly, be sure to break up the roots and that initial soil when you go to plant them. With dormant hardwood cuttings and rooted cuttings, the biggest failure is letting them dry out for even a few hours. It happens quicker than you'd figure because those roots are growing quickly. Ensure they stay watered, and you slowly introduce them to the full sun.
Throughout the summer you may also be able to locate potted elderberry plants. Depending on how established they are, it's usually best to wait until fall to plant these in the ground, just because of heat and moisture. Most likely you can find these at your local farmers market or reach out to your local elderberry farm, they’d likely be happy to pot up some plants for you.
If you want to explore into the realm of ornamental elderberries or imported, Sambucus nigra elderberries, in recent years you can purchase these potted in big box stores. I recall seeing black lace available at Lowes last year. I won't lie, I was tempted to buy it. Those pink flowers are too cute… might try to find one this summer... Just be advised that purchasing a Sambucus nigra elderberry will require you to boil the berries before consuming.
Sticks Not Seeds
Why don't we plant elderberry seeds? Here's the short answer: The elderberry genome is over four times as large as a human's, it's very unlikely you'd get the same plant if you planted the seeds. Now I am not saying you might not end up with some good plants, but they likely would not have the same qualities as the one you collected seeds from and wanted to reproduce. This is why we start with cuttings instead of seeds.
Bare Root Elderberry Plants
Usually in late Summer and Fall US sellers will offer bare root elderberry plants. These are usually at least one year old, so you are getting an extra year’s worth of growth. However, the price point is likely close to that of a potted elderberry. The soil will have been shaken out and the top of the plant trimmed off for shipping. These are excellent to plant in late fall, and you’ll have lots of success planting bare roots. These will require the least effort to get started, as you are planting them in the late fall, and they will be going and already have roots established come spring.
Again, you can find American elderberries in various stages on our website throughout the year on the River Hills Harvest PLANTS & SUPPLIES page. You can also find information about planting and growing there. Ensure you are getting your plants from a reputable source so not to spread pests and diseases. Your next step is determining the selections you want to grow and preparing your area for planting.
Start an elderberry tradition on your own homestead.
Until next time, cheers to your health!
I am Heather Wilson, of the River Hills Harvest crew. By being part of the company, I am blessed to have access to American elderberries in all forms. I enjoy experimenting with new ways to incorporate them into my diet, as well as other natural plants, berries and more. I have a background in greenhouse management as well as floral design and am involved in the art community as an artist, when time allows. I enjoy playing guitar and writing songs. I also enjoy wandering in nature with no real purpose, because a purpose always presents itself. It’s a busy life, but one that I love and feel lucky to be a part of.