Growing Elderberries in Your Backyard

Looking for a berry that's easy to grow, but still a bit off the beaten path? Try elderberries

There's a line in the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" that states, in part, "Your father smelt of elderberries!" It's intended as an insult, and for good reason. You see, straight from the bush, elderberries smell kind of like really dirty cabbage -- at best.

As for the flavor, the berries are astringent, and basically inedible when uncooked. So that begs the question: why bother with 'em? Because they make incredible jelly, and they're very easy to grow, that's why!

The Specifics

Elderberries (a.k.a. elders) belong to the genus Sambucus, a family of bushes and small trees common in temperate to subtropical climates.

The berries themselves tend to be a deep blue- or purple-black, though a few species produce red or, very occasionally, white or yellow berries. The most common type grown for berries is the black elder, or Sambucus nigra.

Some people also plant elders to provide for butterflies and bees, which mob the masses of white flowers the trees produce each spring, as well as birds, which stuff themselves on the berries. The fact that elderberries survive well into the winter makes them a significant food source for wildlife.

Growing Stats

Elders are not especially picky trees, which may explain why they grow so readily in the wild. They're hardy right up to U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 3 or 4, depending on the variety; that's as far north as parts of Minnesota and Alaska. Take the time to figure out your plant hardiness zones if you don't already know.

While elders prefer well-drained but moist, fertile soils with pH levels of 5.5 to 6.5, they can tolerate a surprisingly wide range of soil conditions, which makes them great options when more delicate plants refuse to thrive. You might not get the best possible yields, but they will grow, and they will produce.

Just make sure you maintain good drainage, as elderberries hate wet feet, and plant them in the spring at least 6-10 feet apart. Since they're shallow-rooted, you may want to stake the saplings, and definitely water them regularly to help the root systems develop. Fertilize them in the early spring of every year.

The Harvest

Your elders will put up new canes each season and should yield a sparse harvest of berries the very first year, with yields increasing yearly thereafter. Harvest in late August or early September, unless you prefer to leave the berries for the birds.

I think that's a bad idea, because elderberries are great for your health! They're rich in Vitamin C, and no temperate berry has more phosphorus or potassium, both of which are essential to good health. Just be sure to use your elderberries quickly, because they won't keep for long.

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