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Planting American Elderberries - Dormant Hardwood Cuttings

How to properly plant your American elderberry cuttings.

By Heather Wilson

February 15, 2024


Our crew at River Hills Harvest has planted thousands if not millions of American elderberry cuttings through the years.  Not just for us, but for other farms who now have fully producing crops.  In the beginning we didn’t know all the facts we do now about American elderberries.  We have experimented with the number of nodes, length and width of the cutting sizes, as well as planting times.   We have found that a two-node set dormant hardwood cutting at least a half-inch in thickness has the best success rate.  As well, the highest success rate comes with cuttings that are planted before the middle of March.  The University of Missouri is now conducting official research on best planting practices and these findings are available to the public.  You can find their research on American elderberries at Advancing American Elderberry on Facebook or their Website.  


American Elderberries Sambucus Canadensis Grow Farm Garden Elderberries River Hills Harvest American elderberry dormant hardwood cuttings, Pocahontas selection, lower half.
River Hills Harvest American elderberry dormant hardwood cuttings, Pocahontas selection.

Gardeners and farmers have been using cuttings to replicate plants for many, many generations.  Hardwood cuttings are used for American black elderberries and folks who have grown roses, willows or figs are no stranger to the dormant hardwood cutting.  If you read our last blog American Elderberries - How to Buy, you know that we don’t plant elderberry seeds, we use dormant hardwood cuttings.  This is because the elderberry genome is over 4 times the size of a human.  So, if we planted seeds, we would not have much idea of what type of elderberry we’d be getting, other than knowing it’s a Sambucus canadensis (or known as American elderberries).  Some elderberries don’t ever fruit, or their fruit ripens unevenly among other problems.  This is why we stick to cuttings of selections we know we like.  


Dormant hardwood cutting.  What does that even mean?  


It means that it is a clipping of a hardwood plant that has been taken when the plant is in its dormant state.  Meaning there are no leaves on the plant as well as no roots have developed on the cutting.  In the Midwest, our dormant season happens in the winter.  During the late fall you’ll notice the elderberries lose their leaves and the optimal time to take cuttings from them happens in the middle of winter, starting around January.  


We know now that softwood cuttings are not ideal for elderberries, especially in a commercial setting.  A softwood cutting would be taken during the growing season and the cutting would have leaves on it.  Perhaps you’ve taken softwood cuttings of your indoor house plants in the past.  It can be done with elderberries, but we don’t recommend it.  Regarding American elderberries, we get much stronger plants when we start with dormant hardwood cuttings.


In addition to being rootless and leafless, the magic number of node sets for American elderberry cuttings are two.  You’ll notice the opposite sided nodes in the photo below.  Your cuttings should have two sets of these, one for the air and one for the soil.


American Elderberries Sambucus canadensis River Hills Harvest The top and bottom nodes of American elderberry cuttings.
The top nodes of American elderberry cuttings.

Sambucus canadensis cutting American Elderberries River Hills Harvest The top and bottom nodes of American elderberry cuttings.
The bottom nodes of American elderberry cuttings.






































Our River Hills Harvest cutting crew starts in January, totally coppicing each elderberry plant to the ground.  The sticks are cut into cuttings that contain two sets of nodes each.  They are sanitized and carefully stored with moist sphagnum moss in a refrigerated area.  Dormant hardwood cuttings must remain moist so they can eventually form roots.  They are stored in cold temperatures, so they remain dormant until we are ready to plant them.  However, there is a window of opportunity with American elderberries and the rule is:  the earlier you plant the better.  


This means that American elderberries like to be planted in cold weather.  Why?  


Although a dormant hardwood cutting looks like just a stick, each cutting has stored energy in it.  When planted in too warm of weather, the cutting uses that energy to make beautiful leaves at the top.  However, the leaves are short lived because there is no energy left to form roots, and if there are roots present, they are not strong ones.  We plant in cold weather so the energy is directed into the ground where the cutting can form strong roots.  Then once the weather warms up, it is able to fully grow leaves and continue to develop.  


This means it is not recommended to plant them in your house where it is warm.  It also means you need to get them in the ground before your season is too hot.  Again, the optimal time to get them in the ground is before mid-March.  You can however, plant them in pots and keep them in a cool greenhouse if you would like to protect them while they are getting established.  You do not need to heat the greenhouse though; your elderberries will prefer it to be cool.  This may mean you need some type of ventilation or shade cloth in some areas during the afternoon hours if you are in a warmer climate.


The majority of commercial elderberry growing in the United States happens in Missouri, or in the general Midwest.  We realize our climate is different than in Florida, Texas or California and quite frankly, there’s still a lot to learn about those areas.  We have found that most warmer climates like that can immediately treat their cuttings and plant them (treating meaning using a dormant oil to prevent mites or disease as well as sanitizing).  This can happen anytime between November through February.  There are farmers out there developing their own native selections in those areas and finding that they do well, we hope to see some of those selections in production over the next few years.  


We have now established what it means to buy a dormant hardwood cutting, and we know that American elderberries like to be planted in cold weather.  Where do they want to be planted?  First and foremost, you want to prepare your planting area.  American elderberries do the best planted directly in the ground.  This is what we recommend but they can be started and grown in pots.  



American Elderberries Sambucus canadensis River Hills Harvest Commercial American elderberry field in bloom in Hartsburg, Missouri, Adams II selection. 
Commercial American elderberry field in bloom in Hartsburg, Missouri, Adams II selection. 

I had one plant in a 40-gallon tote, and it outgrew it within two years so think BIG if you are going with pots.  If you think you’d like to move your elderberry within a few years, we recommend planting it in a bottomless planter.  That way the roots can still expand, but when you are ready to transport it, cut the roots between the top of your lawn soil level and the bottom of the planter.  They do well transported this way.   If you have access to the area, you can also come back in the winter and take cuttings from your original plants. We have information about making your own elderberry cuttings on the RESOURCES page our website.


To fully produce, your American elderberries are going to want a full sun area.  Elderberries will grow nicely under some shade but likely will not produce many flowers or berries.  For some climates that get very hot throughout the summer, we may recommend offering your elderberries some afternoon shade to offset the heat/sun.     


An ideal soil pH is between 5.5-6.5 and the use of compost to get organic matter into your soil is recommended.  We have seen farmers use anything from chicken scratch to used coffee grounds to add to their soil.  If you are planting commercially, it’s recommended that you plant a cover crop beforehand.  Organic material is key, and know that for the best elderberry plant, you want to provide them with the best soil possible in your area.  You’ll also want a weed free area or use a weed cloth.  


American elderberries Sambucus canadensis River Hills Harvest Cover crops in elderberry rows before commercially planting.
Cover crops in elderberry rows before commercially planting.




















But HOW do you plant them?


Now that your area is ready to be planted, we are going to discuss nodes again.  Each cutting has two node sets, one for the air and one for the soil.  You’ll notice that most commercial elderberry growers will add an angled cut at the bottom of the cutting, this is for helping identify which way is down and needs to go into the soil.  If you don’t have an angled cut, ensure the nodes are facing upward.  


Identify your bottom node set, it’s going to want to be under the soil surface about 1-3 inches.  You’ll stick the cutting in the hole (straight, not angled) and cover that bottom node set.  Your top node set will be what is sticking out of the ground.  In the photo below, you can see the ideal soil planting depth is located just about 1-3 inches above the bottom nodes:


Locating a dormant hardwood cutting’s top and bottom nodes, and determining soil planting depth of the elderberry cutting.  American elderberries River Hills Harvest
Locating a dormant hardwood cutting’s top and bottom nodes, and determining soil planting depth of the elderberry cutting.




















Viola!  You’ve successfully planted your elderberry cutting! You can choose to mulch if you would like and be sure to water them in well.  


Now what?  You’ll want to ensure your American elderberry cuttings are kept watered and weeded.  You should start to see leaves emerge around April and likely first year plants will not flower or fruit (if they do, pinch them off to encourage more growth).  We want everyone to be successful elderberry growers and if you’ve made it this far in growth, congratulations!  


If you would like to do some more research, we have lots of available information here on our website on the RESOURCES page.   We offer a series of online classes if you are serious about getting into commercial growing, you can find them at www.GrowElderberries.com.  As well, you can follow River Hills Harvest on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.  If you are wanting to order American elderberry cuttings, you’re in luck!  We are shipping dormant hardwood cuttings out now through February.  Click HERE to shop.  If you’re not sure dormant hardwood cuttings are the way you’d like to go, possibly rooted cuttings or bare root plants are better for you, read our blog American Elderberries - How to Buy to help weigh the pros and cons of each type.  Happy elderberry planting friends!


Until next time, cheers to your health!

Heather 


River Hills Harvest crew blog writer American Elderberries Planting Elderberry

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.


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3 Comments


Can I plant my cutting in a 6" half gallon pot to start and put it in my refrigerator? I live in San Diego California and I don't even think outside is cold enough right now and it's raining and windy as heck. I don't want my cuttings to die and am trying to think of how to give them the best chance. Thank you.

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Terry Durham
Terry Durham
6 days ago
Replying to

Sorry for the delay in response. You can put your cuttings in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to plant, we haven't heard of anyone planting and then refrigerating them. Not really sure we have a good answer for whether that is a good idea or not. You should go ahead and plant them now outside. If they don't work out, we'd recommend planting them around January or February next year in your location. Hope that helps!

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I have spent a lot of money, for myself, not as commercial grower. I have not been successful growing cuttings, but I keep trying. I wish this information would have been available at least 3 years ago. Thanks for finally posting.

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