Pruning Elderberry

Pruning Elderberry

What is an elderberry bush?

Elderberry bushes are large shrubs (or small trees) that produce small clusters of tart, edible berries. These berries are fantastic for use in pies, jams, crumbles and even wines - though they need to be accompanied by lots of sugar to make them sweet enough to eat! If you have one of these plants in your garden, this guide will tell you everything you need to know in order to prune elderberry bushes in the right way.

There are two varieties of elderberry - black elder and red elder. While these two elderberry varieties are similar in many ways, it is very easy to tell them apart. However, with regard to pruning, no distinction is made between the different varieties.

Black elderberry bushes

Sambucus Nigra

The black elder flowers in May and June when the bush is already covered with leaves. The berries of the black elder change colour from red to bluish-black.

Red elderberry bushes

Sambucus Racemosa

The red elder flowers in April and May, just before or just after the leaves appear. The berries of the red elder retain their bright red colour.

Why should you be pruning elderberry bushes?

Pruning elderberry bushes is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is essential for the health of the plant and for its overall appearance. Secondly, pruning these plants ensures that they continue to bear fruit.

How to prune elderberry bushes

When pruning elderberry bushes, start by removing any dead or broken canes from the shrub. You also remove any canes that aren’t showing many elderberries, suggesting that this part of the plant is producing a low yield. You’ll need to use shears to do this.

Elderberries are extremely vigorous, so they can be cut back hard without any problem. Use a lopper or pruning saw for branches that are too thick for secateurs. Cut all branches of the elder back to a height of about fifty centimetres above the ground.

The black elder grows taller than the red elder. If you want to create a tree-like form, you can raise the crown by removing the lowermost branches from the trunk(s). If these branches are very thick, you should first make a saw cut on the underside of the branch and then saw through the branch from the top. This prevents the branch from tearing. Make sure you cut the branch a few inches from the trunk: you can always shorten the stump afterwards (this can be done in one go). You just need to keep enough distance from the trunk so that the branch collar is left intact, as this is better for the tree.

When pruning elderberry, remember:

  • Do not cut beyond where the plant begins to branch: this dense branching needs to be retained, as the more branches are kept, the bushier the elder will be as it grows back.
  • Wild shoots can be removed all year round. They should be cut as far back and as close to the stem as possible.
  • Treat the pruning cuts with a wound sealant to prevent bleeding and infection.
  • Never prune in freezing weather!

When to prune elderberry bushes

Pruning should take place in winter when the plant is dormant. In the case of both elderberry types, March is the best time for more drastic pruning if the bushes become too big.

Pruning elderberry in October & February

If you’d like to do some rejuvenating pruning, you can do so between October and February over the winter.

Pruning elderberry in March

As specified above, the best time to prune either variety of elderberry is during March, before spring arrives. Just remember not to do any pruning in freezing weather - you may need to wait a little later in the year if March temperatures are still very cold.