Hearthstone Berry Farm
Elderberry Trials
Evaluating Elderberries
for Northern Ohio

Varieties in Trial
How to Grow
Plant Sources





About the Farm

Locally Grown Food

Grower's Blog

Recipes and Tips

Blackberry Trials


Growing Information:

Contact Us


    Why Elderberries?
Elderberries, Sambucus spp., are native to a large portion of North America. For years they have been a souce of food and beverage and also have had medicinal uses. They do grow wild in fence rows and out of the way places, but have yet to gain a good foothold for commercial produciton in the area. To that end Hearthstone Berry Farm applied for, and recieved, a small SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) Grant to plant and monitor a trial planting of elderberries. This planting is open to anyone interested in growing elderberries. The trial planting has already exceeded its origianl plans as it now has over 14 varieties installed. Two field days will be held for persons interested in growing this native. In subsequent years several growers have come over to look at varieties and get information on planting and maintenance of elderberries.

About Elderberries
Elderberries are a deciduous shrub about 5-6' in size. New canes are produced yearly with flowers (and, subsequently fruit) being borne on terminal shoots from the current year's growth. This means that elderberries will flower on the growth that emerges in the spring. These new shoots are produced by a system of large fleshy roots. Some plants may form thickets of shoots while others tend to "stay put".

Elderberries flower in late spring. Cross pollination is not required to produce fruit, but flowers that are cross-pollinated will produce larger fruit--it is beneficial to have two cultivars of elderberry in close proximity. New canes will produce a single cluster of fruit. Two and three year canes will produce the most fruit, with flowers borne on shoots emerging from last year's leaf axils. By year four, the productivity of the cane is reduced, so any canes over three years old are removed during winter pruning.

Fruit ripens August to September. The entire flower (called a corymb) is harvested. One method of haarvesting individual berries is to freeze the entire cluster, pull the frozen berries off, then refreeze them.

Elderberries can be purchased as bare-root plant, potted plants and even rooted or unrooted cuttings. It is important to remember that the less developed transplants will spend the first year developing a root system and will likely not produce a "first year" crop.

Berry Harvest
We did a study to compare the weight of berries against the weight of berries on the stems. This was primarily to answer the question of "How much stem am I paying for when I pick berries?" The answer is "Very little." The data will be posted here.

Elderberry Trials
Eight planting rows were set aside for elderberry trials. The trial is located on the North side of the irrigation pond and is partially on a steep slope. Nutrients and pH were corrected according to soil tests. For the purpose of the trial planting, rows are 15' apart and plants are spaced 5'apart within the row.. Plants were gathered from several sources, including cuttings from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository. The goal was to have 5 of each variety. However, several varieties are represented by fewer than five plants.

Plants are irrigated to 1" per week via trickle irrigation. Fertilizer applied as 19-19-19 due to low soil P levels. Rate of application is 5 ounces per first year plant and 10 ounces per second year plant (Galletta, 1994) as a split application, half at bud break and the remainder 6 weeks later.

Data collected will include size of plant, pounds of fruit, and qualitative ratings provided by field day attendees.

We would like to thank North Central USDA SARE for the grant supporting this project--benefiting growers in the entire region.

Elderberry Varieties in Trial
Cultivar spp.  
Nova canadensis  
Johns canadensis  
Adams canadensis  
York canadensis  
Samdal nigra  
Samyl nigra  
S. canadensis canadensis  
S. nigra nigra  
S. cerulae cerulea  
Haschberg nigra  
Korsor nigra  
Thundercloud nigra  
Guicho Purple nigra  
Serendio canadensis  
Voltra canadensis  
MC1 (Mulberry Creek Selection) canadensis  

We are getting into regular production now. More significant is done every spring. We did start to get some mulch onto the rows for weed control but another layer next year will help even more and we need to get mulch on more rows.

We added another 5000 square feet of production to bring us up to just under 1/2 acre of elderberries. The plants added were from Mulberry Creek herb farm. This section berries, all one type, is going to be used to test out althernative methods of pruning, fertilizing and weed control--they all have to be the same variety for a valid comparison. We are also doing some propagating to fill in gaps in the earleir block where plants were trial plants were lost.

Most of the berries came through our deep freeze without a problem except for 'Haschburg', one of the S. nigra varieteis. Several of the plants budded out then collaped within a few weeks.

Rainfall was good again this year. We did not run irrigation once for the elderberries. Some of the excessive rain events interfered with our herbicides and we lost control of the weeds in some rows.

Harvest, as expected, was even better this year.

The oldest plants are now bearing full crops and you can see significant differences in the varieties as you walk through the trial. The bird netting makes a huge difference in picking--you can pick tens of pounds of berries in a short time. A significant storm pulled down our nets in the latter part of August and the birds cleaned out the berries in a couple of days.

Rainfall was much better this year as we had significant rain with good drying time in between. We ran the irrigation infrequently this year. The weeds are our biggest problem. Elderberries don't like competition and where we can control the weeds, the plants grow much more vigorously. We are planning on using mulch to cut back on our need for herbicides, but that is a very labor intensive and expensive plan.

This was the first year we had to do any real pruining. Elderberries bear poorly on any canes over three years old. Now that our planting is mature, we did a lot of pruning to keep the bushes to a total of 24 canes and also to prune out the 4 year old wood.

Rain continues to fall regularly saturating even tiled fields. Temperatures have not been as low as expected. December was mainly in the 40s and so far January has been in the 30s. No new plants were ordered for 2012; most commonly available elderberries seem to be represented in the trial.

After an early start with temperatures reaching 80 in late March, freezing temperatures returned for much of April. Freeze and frost damage to apples and peaches in the area left the elderberries unharmed. Elderberries flowers are terminal on the current year's growth so flower buds were produced after the March heat and April freeze.

Late spring and summer brought little to no rain to Nova, Ohio. The drought of 2012 was the worst in three decades. Rainfall records on the farm show that the farm missed all of the mid-summer thunderstorms. The pond, ten feet deep, was pumped to within four feet of the bottom. As water reserves in the soil profile were depleted (in August) the single drip irrigation line was not able to delever enough water to the plants. A second line for each row will be added in the coming year(s).

S. racemosa aborted all of its fruit during a stretch of 90 degree weather. S. nigra held up the best late in the drought.

The bird netting system was finished this year. Keeping the birds out made a huge difference to the poor drought harvest. Fruit clusters were full and picked when 100% ripe. Pickers were able to fill boxes from one shrub.

No pruning was requried this winter. Mulch was reapplied. Milorganite and soap bars were used as deer deterrent. Continual and heavy rain made it impossible to apply deer repellent, or use any herbicides. Early fertilizer applications were also likely washed out and may need to be reapplied after assessing growth.

Fertilizer was reapplied at half the recommended rate. Scent and taste repellents for deer failed in June (I suspect we had at least one mother and fawn in the hay field just behind the elderberry block). The plants continued to grow but many buds were lost. Bird netting was laid over plants for deer control!

Weed control was from a combination of hand-weeding, careful use of glyphosate, and Poast/Surflan tank mix applied mid spring for grassy weeds and pre-emergent. Extremely heavy rain drastically shortened the efficacy of pre-emergents across the area in nurseries, landscapes and orchards. A flush of weed growth followed in unmulched areas--the mulch was great help. Spot treatment with glyphosate was usd in areas between plants.

Japanese beetle was only a minor problem this year. Occasional rain late July and early August may lead to increased beetle activity in 2012; this will be considered when planning pest control next year.

Rain has been "feast or famine" as record spring rains were followed by several weeks with no rain, followed by a three inch rain, followed by two weeks with no rain.... Irrigation was run to apply a total of one to two inches of water per week (the half-acre pond had been pumped down by twelve inches by August). On October 21st, our area broke the all time record for yearly rainfall (with two months left in the year).

The first year of the trial was dedicated to finding varieties still in stock after the grant startup date (April 1). There was a vast difference in development the first year. Some plants arrived as unrooted cuttings, rooted cuttings, bareroot plants or potted stock. Only the potted plant material produced any fruit the first year. The first year with a margninal harvest will be 2011 with full harvest expected from third year plants the summer of 2012. Deer browsed the leaves off of all of the plants in late fall. Stems were left untouched and this is where the next crop will be carried.

Space about 5' apart in rows 12' apart. Choose spacing that allows equipment travel down the rows without damageing brittle stems (that will produce the following year's crop).

Plants bear on new growth so the first year can will produce a single terminal flower cluster. Second and third year canes produce flowers from each leaf axil. Yield decreases after three years. Therefore, all canes over three years old are removed during winter pruning. Alternatively, the entire plant can be pruned to the ground every few years. There is some literature which suggests a different pruning scheme for S. nigra but I have not found any other publications to support that.

Apply 60-80#N/A as a split application. Use the higher rate to increase cane production if needed. This is about 5 ounces of 19-19-19 per shrub.

Rainfall is monitored from local USDA weather stations and irrigation is used to supplement rainfall to 1" per week via trickle irrigation. One can calculate the delivery rate of trickle irrigation from the manufacturer specifications.

Weed Control:
Elderberries do not tolerate competition very well, so a good weed control program will help production. Herbicides are available for weed control. A thin layer of mulch works well around the plants as well as down the rows.

Undoubtedly, deer are the worst pest in the elderberry block. Scent and taste repellents can be used as well as fencing. Milorganite and soap bars seem to be somewhat effective so far. Virus are also common in Sambucus, it is best to remove all wild plants and rouge out any suspicious plants in the block.

Handouts from presentations:
Field Day handout, 1 page, basic information
Compendium, a collection of information about elderberry growing; short bullet lists for growers.

Cornell's minor fruit page
Missouri Agriculture Experiment Station's elderberry trial
Jack Keller's Winemaking Home Page
Brews Brothers [a.k.a. The Blue Board] Wine Mead & Cider Forum
Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Reich, 2004
Midwest Commercial Small Fruit and Grape Spray Guide is a good resource for updated pesticide information AND it can aid in diagnosing problems because it lists pest and disease problems in order of occurrence. (Ohio State University Regional Extension Bulletin 506B2)
Midwest Small Fruit Pest Managment Handbook (Ohio State University Extension Bulletin 861)
Midwest Home Fruit Production Guide, Bulletin 940 (for general homeowner use)

Plant Sources
National Clonal Germplasm Repository, Mulberry Creek Herb Farm, Musser Forests, Nourse Farms, One Green World, Raintree Nursery, St. Lawrence Nursery