Rick’s Native Plant of the Month | American elders

July 14, 2021

By Rick Bogusch

Bridge Gardens

The American elders (Sambucus canadensis) we planted a couple of years ago have really grown and are blooming up a storm right now. Native to eastern North America, these berry plants tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, from clay to sand, but do best in moist to wet soils in full sun or partial shade.

A great plant for wildlife and for naturalizing on the margin of woodlands, along streams and pond edges, they are also useful in shrub borders and as background for other plants.

Elders need space. They can grow up to 12 feet tall and wide and can sucker and form large colonies if left uncontrolled. With a broad, rounded shape, they look their best when branches are allowed to arch and droop gracefully to the ground. Lemon-scented, white flowers appear in early summer in large, flat-topped clusters covering the entire plant. Flowers become the sweet, black elder fruits often used to make jams, jellies and wine or to attract pollinators and feed the birds.


Elderberry canadensis close up

As they mature, elders often need pruning, which is best done in winter. Prune to remove dead and weak stems or to shorten new growth. Many growers cut plants to the ground annually at this time to encourage vigorous new growth and lots of flowers and fruit. Many varieties selected for abundant fruits are available. Look for ‘Adam,’ ‘Bob Gordon’ and ‘Nova.’

FYI, elders with variegated leaves and other ornamental characteristics are not the native elder just described, but rather the closely related European elder (Sambucus nigra.)

Recent studies have shown elder extracts can offer relief from cold and flu symptoms, sparking renewed interest in this native among farmers as a lucrative crop.

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