OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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An elderberry


Sambucus nigra

The Elder tree in early sources

Description   Propagation   Cultivation   Harvest


Scientific name

Sambucus nigra

Common names, modern

Black elder, Boon-tree, Boortree,  Bothery-tree, Bourtree, Common elder, Eldern, Ellanwood, Ellar, Ellarne, Ellen-tree,  Ellhorn, European elder, Hilder, Hillerne, Hylder, Pipe tree, Whusselwood

Boor, bour, bor, bur tree - Bower tree

Boon tree, bountrie, bothery - Boon, blessing, gift

Ellæn, ellærn  - Elder tree

Hilder, Hylder, Hillerne - Hyldemoer, Elder tree mother

Pipe tree, whusselwood - The hollow stems wereused to make whistles and popguns.



Perennial shrub or small tree

Cold hardiness

Zones 4-8, tolerates light frost


15' H by 15' W


Very full, sends up many arching small stems, needs to be pruned in early spring to remove excess branches.
Elderberry flowers, or Elder blowFlower Flowers in June/July; flowers, called "elder blow," are small and  creamy white, held in flat, drooping clusters called cymes
ElderberriesFruit Forms in August/September; dark purple, almost black, berries with red juice. Leaves, twigs, and seeds are toxic -- this said, elderberry jelly is excellent, as is elderberry syrup, but both are indeed cooked.
Elderberry foliageFoliage Leaves are alternate, with each pinnate leaf having 5-7 leaflets. Margins are finely toothed.
Comments As it grows, the elderberry will send branches every which way; these need to be pruned in early spring, or their shade will cause the lower branches to die off.
By seed

When fruit is so dark it is almost black, gather berries from several from different clusters; plant in cold frame and leave them there over the winter. Watch for shoots and transplant these to nursery bed in full sun after the last frost in the spring; keep well watered through their first summer.

To grow inside, gather berries as above, remove pulp thoroughly and let seed dry; store in a warm place for 60 days. Then cold stratify in refrigerator for 90 days. Remove from cold, plant 1/2" deep in 3" pot; grow on at 75 degrees daytime, cooler in the evening.

Germination temperature 75 degrees
Germination time 14-35 days
Moisture Keep evenly moist
Light Does not need light to germinate
By cuttings

Root cuttings - Dig 5" root cuttings, about as big around as a pencil, in March.  Place lengthwise in pot and cover with about an inch of potting medium. Keep moist and warm, and watch for shoots. When shoots have several  leaves, transplant to individual pots.

Green- and hard-wood cuttings - Collect 4" cuttings with 3-4 nodes before growth begins in the spring. Dip cutting in rooting powder so that two lower nodes are covered; plant with those nodes below surface of moist potting medium.  Place pot in plastic bag and keep soil slightly moist until you see new growth.

Cuttings with leaves - Sprouted cuttings also root well as long as high humidity is maintained around them as they root. Take 4" cuttings as early as possible (before July); each cutting should have 2-3 nodes. Remove leaves so that only the top two leaves are left. Dip the two lower nodes in rooting compound and place with these two nodes below the surface of the potting medium. Place pot in plastic bag and keep soil slightly moist until you see new growth.


Soil Tolerates most soils, but needs good drainage
Moisture Needs adequate moisture, but tolerates dry periods once established
Light Full sun to light shade
Natural habitat Often near water along streams, in ditches, along fence rows
Vigor Hardy; will sucker some, but not problematic
Diseases Elderberries are susceptible to whitewash fungus, Hyphodontia sambuci. Infected branches look like someone splattered thick white paint on them. Removed diseased branches, and clean up under the tree as well.

Elderberries here in the upper Midwest seem to be bothered by few insect pests. Rabbits are another question, and will feed heavily on elderberry bark in a cold winter. Birds like the fruit in the summer, but our elders bear heavily enough that we're willing to share.

Organic approaches

Make a decoction of 4 c. of the green leaves, covered with 2 c. boiling water. Cool over night, then strain. Use as a spray, this will repel aphids and caterpillars, and also help prevent mildew and leaf rot. Old gardeners believed that this would also prevent blight in turnips, cabbages, and fruit trees.

Companion plants

Elderberry is such an enthusiastic little tree that it will shade out most plants that try to grow beneath its branches. You can prevent this by pruning lower branches so that some light reaches the ground.

Season to bloom/bear Flowers bloom June/July; berries follow soon after in August/September
Seed collection Collect seed when berries are ripe

Elderberries on older shoots ripen sooner than those on this year's growth, so the harvest can be spread out a bit. The fruit makes wonderful jam and syrup.


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F.D. Drewitt


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