The Ultimate Guide to the Elderberry Plant

The elderberry plant (elder) is one that no garden should be without. From the sweet smell permeating to its flourishing bright colors, this is one of the most versatile plants with a ubiquitous history … some even refer to it as "magical."

The various species of Sambucus are commonly called elder or elderberry. There are many varieties of elderberries around the globe used for medicinal purposes and mentioned throughout mythology. Similar to wine grapes, the variety of elderberry plants in combination with differing growing locations can lead to berries of vastly different color, taste, and minerals.

(Learn more about our premium Haschberg variety of European black elderberries here.)

Get To Know The Elderberry Plant

To really appreciate the elderberry, one must understand its rich diversity and the use of all the plant parts for immune support and beyond. Throughout generations the elderberry has been considered valuable and known for its capability to support good health. Let’s travel the world and discover how the elderberry has been utilized through the years.

As early as 400 AD, one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine, Hippocrates, often praised this prolific plant as his "entire medicine chest." Later,  European settlers in North America referred to this bloom as the Sambucus canadensis and harvested the berries for recipes like pies, syrups, and jams. Native Americans used various parts of the shrub to create tools like arrows and baskets.

Across the ocean in Europe, the elderberry and elder flower of the Sambucus nigra were harvested for wine. Elderflower wine was said to be drunk at the Beltane celebrations and at Samhain which was consumed to promote hallucinations at the end of each autumn season. 

Elderberry plant growing along river

What Does The Elderberry Plant Look Like?

Elder is a low maintenance plant that typically grows as a shrub or small tree between 5 and 10 feet in height. They grow leaves in compounds of 5 to 11. From the hollow stems grow clusters (called umbels) of tiny white flowers that eventually mature into tiny bright purple berries.

Elderberries boast a high concentration of certain flavonoids called anthocyanins, which are responsible for their signature dark purple color. Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that work within the immune system to enhance the body’s response to antigens and keep it functioning at its best. Learn more about the benefits of elderberry.

In the wild, these deciduous shrubs are planted for forage, productivity and adaptability. Established easily, the elderberry plant provides ground cover close to stream banks where wildlife has long taken refuge for protection and food.

Today, the elderberry plant is easy to maintain in one's very own backyard revealing beautiful blooms, berries and shade. If you are on the market for one you may come across these common varieties:

  • Kent: Early season production, very sweet berries.
  • Nova: Hardy. Plant with another American elderberry variety for cross-pollination.
  • Scotia: Produces some of the smallest berries and holds the highest sugar content of any named cultivar.
  • York: Tall and vigorous plant. Produces large clusters in late summer.

All cultivars can be characterized by their majestic clusters of white flowers, compound leaves, and shrub-like plant structure.

black elderberries on elder tree

When To Plant  Elderberry 


This is the best season to plant. The frost has passed and warmer weather is on the horizon. During the spring elderberry leaves become strongly scented and less palatable for wildlife, however they sweeten and become riper into the fall season.


The elderberry harvest season generally occurs from mid-August to mid-September, depending upon the region and the cultivar.

Once you have chosen your favorite type of elderberry plant, here are some recommendations to encourage good growth within their new environment:

  • Plant in pairs and no more than 50-60 feet apart. This helps with cross-pollination.
  • Allow plenty of growing space. These tall plants require room to thrive. 
  • Elderberries have shallow root systems and flourish in fertile and well-drained soil; keep them well-watered (make sure to not over-water) for the first year until they are established.
  • Add fertilizer to help your plants grow to its full potential into an abundant tart and sweet elderberry harvest.

Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. The clusters of berries ripen over a period of between 5 to 15 days. When the berries are soft to the touch and dark purple, gather the fruit by stripping it from the cluster.

The Amazing Power of Elderberries

Elderberries are full of flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential vitamins A, C and E. Vitamin A often works as an antioxidant, fighting cell damage, and it also has many other uses from supporting bone density to supporting proper functioning of eyes and skin health. Given its beneficial properties, vitamin E has long held assistance as an immunity enhancer by protecting cells from free radical damage.

Vitamin C is one of the most important water-soluble vitamins and essential to our bodies for enhanced antibody production.

Sambucol® Black Elderberry syrup, gummies and all products supply the body with antioxidants and help support its natural immune response, and they are safe to enjoy daily.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Raw elderberries are toxic to eat unless they are safely extracted and processed to remove the toxins. Elder branches, bark and leaves should not be consumed at all. If you are purchasing elderberry products it is crucial to purchase from a reputable source. Sambucol® is the original, most-trusted black elderberry vitamins sold around the world.

Shop all of our black elderberry products — from syrups to gummies and more.

elderflower tea