Elderberries are multi-stemmed shrubs that grow wild in many regions of Spain. Once ignored in favor of more popular berries, elderberry cultivation is making a comeback and you’ll find them across the country in jams, cakes, and wine. They are also a highly sought-after medicinal plant and have more vitamin C than oranges.
I have fond memories of picking wild elderberries with my grandmother to turn them into delicious cakes. I especially remember pursing my mouth when I couldn’t resist tasting one of the sour fruits while we were plucking them.
Both the sweet-smelling flowers and the fruit are edible. The flowers are perfect in southern fritters and they also make delicious champagne. Traditionally, elderberries are not eaten fresh due to the astringent taste, but newer crops are producing berries that taste sweeter.
The American elderberry ( Sambucus nigra subsp. Canadensis ) produces small fruits that grow in clusters similar to grapes.
There is also European elderberry ( Sambucus nigra) that is more ornamental and does not produce as much fruit, nor is it as tasty.
Be careful when choosing elderberries, especially if you harvest them from the wild. There is a related plant, the red elderberry ( Sambucus racemosa ), which resembles other elderberries. It produces bright red fruits that are poisonous to humans.
Adams – Adams is the famous elderberry “pie” and produces medium, juicy, purple fruit that ripens in August. They grow eight feet tall and do well in humid areas. It is a robust shrub and is not prone to collapse under the weight of the berries, which are semi-sweet and can be enjoyed fresh. Johns is the perfect cross-pollinator, although Adams will cross New York and New York as well.
Johns – Johns is a tall variety that reaches up to 12 feet. The upper branches tend to be heavy with fruit and bend, so use tree supports. It is a vigorous producer of large dark tart berries that are delicious in jams and jellies. It is cold hardy and does well in northern climates. I have both Johns and Adams growing on my farm, and I harvest the berries at the same time and don’t separate them by species because I love the sweet and tangy mix.
Nova y York – Nova y York is more compact and is approximately 1.80 m tall. They pollinate each other. Some nurseries promote Nova as self-fruiting, but it doesn’t produce as well on its own. York produces large berries that ripen a couple of weeks later than other varieties.
Bob Gordon – Bob Gordon is a new variety developed by the University of Missouri, a leader in elderberry production. It has large clusters of large dark purple berries. It is the favorite of winemakers thanks to its high sugar content.
When growing elderberries, keep in mind that they are cross-pollinated. You will need to have at least two different varieties within a 15-meter radius.
Sun and temperature requirements
Elderberries prefer a sunny location but are adapted to the shady part. They are hardy throughout Spain in USDA zones 3 through 10.
Elderberries are not picky but prefer slightly acidic soil rich in compost. The optimum pH of the soil should be between 5.5 and 6.5. Ideally, they should have a well-drained, sandy, clay site. Add some manure or compost before planting if you don’t have soil.
Plants do well in humid areas and can tolerate wet feet. I grow mine next to a fence in an area that contains water.
When to plant
The best way to grow elderberries is to purchase named plants from a reputable nursery. This way you will know what cultivar you are planting and you will be able to choose varieties that pollinate easily
Plant in the spring when all danger of frost has passed. Dig a generous hole and mix the native soil with equal parts well-rotten compost. Plant two cm deeper than the container in the nursery.
Elderberries grow between 6 and 12 feet tall, depending on the variety, and are just as wide. Place the plants 6 to 10 feet apart.
Elderberries can be grown from cuttings, although it is more difficult. Collect coniferous wood cuttings in early spring, when it is still green and pliable.
Cut the softwood into six-inch pieces and remove the leaves from the bottom two inches. Put them in a jar filled with two centimeters of water in a warm, sunny place. Replace the water as needed.
The roots will appear in 6-8 weeks. Give them time to establish themselves before transplanting them to the garden.
You can also place the cuttings in a well-watered peat-sand mixture. This helps the plant to grow stronger roots, but it is more difficult to control root growth.
Elderberries are perennial and will begin to produce when they are 2 to 3 years old. They need fertile soil, so compost your elderberries every spring with compost. Place an inch of compost in a ring around the plant, keeping it away from the trunk.
I also give my elderberries a fish emulsion boost at the time of fruit set to stimulate the berries. I spray the leaves and stems of the plant as well as the soil around them. Elderberries have shallow roots and will absorb the fish emulsion.
Growing elderberries needs regular water. The plants have shallow roots and need about an inch or two a week. Water at ground level to prevent fungi and mold from infecting your plants.
Elderberries don’t need to be pruned until the third year. Prune dead or diseased branches in early spring, and remove branches that are more than four years old because they are less productive. The fruits grow in both new and old wood, but the best production occurs in canes that are one and two years old. Pruning old canes will encourage the growth of new canes.
Elderberries will produce new canes and suckers, similar to Raspberry, so they make a pretty hedge or living fence. These new canes will bear fruit for years to come, so they will only be removed if they become invasive.
Cover with straw or bark to help reduce weeds and keep moisture in during the summer.