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Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis), which can grow wild or be cultivated, are a beneficial fruit, high in vitamin C, but without careful attention to harvest, the tiny berries will end up on the ground instead of in your mouth. If you feel uncomfortable about raking up your elderberry harvest, there are some things you can do to prepare your plants before the fruit starts to drop.
Elderberry harvest occurs in late summer through early autumn, and the best way to prepare for the harvest is to keep an eye on the fruits as they ripen. The berries will have a whitish sheen on the surface, and as they ripen, the sheen will get whiter—experience will teach you when the time to harvest is right. Remove the entire cluster (I use clippers) when it’s ripe, and strip the berries from the stem into containers. Because ripe berries are fragile, cool them in the refrigerator immediately.
Give immature elderberry plants plenty of space. They’re fast-growing and exuberant producers when happily sited in the garden. Growing naturally in wet areas, they reach up to 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide, with large, feather-like leaves up to 1 foot long that give way to large flattened clusters of tiny, white, star-shaped flowers. A multi-stemmed suckering shrub, the stems and branches are pithy and soft rather than woody, forming dense thickets. With a leggy habit and rather coarse texture, elderberry shrubs tend to be wild and unkempt-looking unless pruned periodically. After flowering, you’ll see the dark-purple to black berries forming on purple stems.
Because elderberries produce fruit on both new and old wood, there’s some opportunity to increase the number of berries you can harvest through proper pruning. The plants send up new canes each year that usually reach full height in one season. The following year, those canes will develop lateral or side branches, and more new canes will grow. Flowers and fruit will develop on the tips of the new growth but especially on the laterals that developed the previous season, making second-year canes with plenty of laterals the most fruitful. In the third year, they begin to weaken, and in the years that follow, they’re not very fruitful.
To maximize your berry harvest, remove all dead, broken or weak canes, as well as all canes more than 3 years old, in late winter while the plants are dormant. Leave an equal number of 1-, 2- and 3-year-old canes. Some varieties available for fruit production from seed retailers across the country are York, Johns and Kent.
About the Author: P. Allen Smith is a professional garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on the Today Show, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Living in the Garden Home (Clarkson Potter, 2007) and other books in the Garden Home series.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Hobby Farm Home.