American Elderberry

(Sambucus canadensis)

American Elderberry fruit
American Elderberry fruit

Cultivars tested

‘Nova’ and ‘York’

Description and site preference

Type and size – shrub, clumps of canes, 12 feet or less
Hardiness zone – 3-8
Exposure – full sun, partial shade
Soil – loams with good organic matter, pH 5.5-6.5
Drainage – well-drained

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 1 year for small crop; 3-5 for full production
Maintenance – low input
Life of planting – continuous with maintenance pruning
Machine harvest potential – intermediate, specialized
Suitable markets – processed (value-added)

American Elderberry in bloom
American Elderberry in bloom

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – superfruit (extremely high in anthocyanins and flavonoids, see Thole et al, referenced below)
Adaptability – broad, except poorly drained soils
Pest issues – few, possibly tomato ringspot virus
Invasive potential – none (native)
Environmental benefits – good insectory plant; late bloom sustains pollinators

Integration characteristics

Shared management – high with other bush, shrub and cane fruits
Shared equipment – intermediate, needs specialized mechanical harvesting
Shared processing – high
Co-marketing – high

Integration potential – good

Both ecologically and economically well-suited for inclusion in an integrated cropping system.


American Elderberry with bird netting
American Elderberry fruit protected with bird netting

History and background

This native North American plant is a deciduous suckering shrub that bears large white flowers in the summer and small black berries in drooping clusters in the fall. It has historically been classified as a separate species, but it is now considered a subspecies of Sambucus nigra L, the European Elderberry.

Also known as the Common Elder, American Elderberry is native to the central and eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. All parts of the plant (roots, leaves, stems, flowers and fruit) have been used in a variety of ways. Roots, leaves and stems are poisonous but have historically been used for medicinal purposes. Extracts from leaves have been used as an insect repellent for the skin and an insecticide to treat fungal infections such as leaf spot and powdery mildew.

The fruit is high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The raw American Elderberry is not acceptable to many tastes, but when cooked renders jams, preserves and pies. (Grower’s note: As a child, I would harvest them in the wild, and my mother would make syrup that was wonderful on pancakes.) Elderberry has been and continues to be used for juice, juice blends and winemaking. Elderberry wine products need very ripe fruits. Less ripe fruit will leave a sticky green deposit on containers, nearly impossible to remove.

As with many underutilized fruit crops, relatively little breeding work has been done with American Elder. There are few named cultivars, and those that exist are not genetically diverse. But this may change through a concerted breeding effort at the University of Missouri. Time will tell how adaptable these new cultivars will be in northern growing areas.

Observations at Carandale Farm

  • This plant is a native species (with no invasiveness concerns), adapted to the climate and soil conditions in the Carandale test plot. No major pest issues, but some leaf spotting was observed.
  • Flocks of birds can harvest a small planting within hours without netting.
  • Virus symptoms were observed on the ‘Nova’ cultivar early on and may have come from infected planting stock.
  • Both cultivars were fruitful by the end of the third year but then declined, partially due to neglect and what appears to be tomato ringspot virus.
  • Renewal pruning is needed to maintain vigor and fruitfulness.
  • Canes over three years old should be removed to reduce competition and encourage new, more vigorous growth.
  • Individual fruit is very small and borne in clusters called cymes, making mechanical harvesting difficult and requiring specialized equipment.
  • A compatible component of a diverse planting, its stature, cultural needs and processing requirements are similar to other fruiting perennial shrubs.

There was not much genetic variability among cultivars that were available for trial in 2003. ‘Nova’ and ‘York’ were selected for cross pollination (both purchased from Northwoods Nursery, see One Green World). ‘Nova’ appeared to have been infected with tomato ringspot virus, which possibly decreased production after three years.

‘Nova’ is smaller with smaller cymes than ‘York’, but individual fruit size and fruit characteristics are comparable. ‘York’ has large and attractive fruiting cymes. The large and vigorous plants can reach 10 feet tall, but the weight of fruit-laden cymes usually causes canes to arch enough so they can be harvested without a ladder. The yield potential of ‘York’ is higher than ‘Nova’ because of cyme and plant size.

Discussion

American Elderberry is native and well-adapted to the region in southern Wisconsin where the Carandale test plot is located. With a high level of disease and insect resistance, it’s a good candidate for organic production. It is known, however, to be susceptible to tomato ringspot virus.

Elderberry is shallow-rooted and grows best in well-drained soils with high levels of organic matter. Retain plant health and vigor with a modest amount of nitrogen and annual pruning to remove dead, broken and weak canes over three years old. Two-year-old canes with lateral branches are most fruitful. Canes over three years old lose vigor and fruitfulness.

Plants are extremely winter hardy. Unlike most perennial fruiting plants, fruit buds are not subject to winter damage because they are formed in the spring on the terminus of new shoots. Bloom does not occur until early summer after the threat of late-spring freezes. Elderberry could be renewal pruned every spring and still produce a modest crop of high quality fruit on the newly emerged first-year canes.

Elderberry is already recognized as a super fruit (see USDA Database for Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods, Release 2.1, 2007, page 40, NDB No.09088). It could be a profitable addition to a diverse cropping system. Its potential for fresh consumption is low, but its value-added potential is high, and it can share processing facilities with many other fruit crops with similar needs.

References

Demand Increasing for Aronia and elderberry in North America,” by Steven A, McKay, Hudson Valley Fruit program, Columbia County Cooperative Extension, Hudson, NY, 2006

Plants for a Future: Sambucus nigra spp canadensis

The Berry Grower’s Companion, by Barbara L. Bowling

Thole, JM, TM Burns Kraft, LA Sueiro, YH Kang, JJ Gills, M Cuendet, JM Pezzuto, DS Seigler and MA Lila. 2006. “A Comparative Evaluation of the Anticancer Properties of European and American Elderberry Fruits.” Journal of Medicinal Food, 9(4): 498-504. <http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jmf.2006.9.498>, accessed 6/24/13.

USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Elderberry

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