Last Updated on April 21, 2021
Thinking of growing elderberries in your garden this season? This comprehensive guide to elderberry varieties contains everything you need to know about the types of elderberry best for different situations and the many enticing elderberry cultivars you can choose from.
Here at HealthyGreenSavvy, we don’t just skim the surface of surprisingly complex topics like elderberry varieties, but proudly wear our garden nerd badge on our sleeves and dive deep into the intricacies of choosing the best elderberry plants for your edible landscape.
I spent months researching the finer points of growing and using elderberries for my new book, Everything Elderberry, and will share what I learned from the experts below. The book also covers the history of elderberries, the science behind their health benefits, foraging and growing information, plus more than 60 recipes for using elderberry and elderflower. You can find out more about it and get your copy here.
Ready to dig into the most complete explanation of elderberry varieties you’re likely to find?
Here’s everything you need to know (and lots more, actually) about choosing elderberry varieties, whether you’re adding a few beautiful edibles to your ornamental landscape or adding to your permaculture garden.
If you’re not up for geeking out over types of elderberry, no worries! You’ll find a list with descriptions of the elderberry varieties experts recommend for gardens in different regions toward the bottom of the post.
MAKING SENSE OF ELDERBERRY VARIETIES
There are several types of elderberry to know about, but first, we need to clarify a little confusing terminology.
Did you learn the mnemonic King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti when you were studying taxonomies in biology class? Those letters were to help you remember the taxonomic classifications: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
When we’re talking about different types of elderberry, what we’re really discussing is that last taxonomic classification, species.
All species of elderberry are in the genus Sambucus. I’m going to focus on the North American and European types of elderberries, though elderberries grow all over the world, and you’ll find species of elderberry native to Asia, Australia, South America, and the Middle East. Here’s more on elderberry identification if you’re wondering whether a wild plant you’ve seen is in fact elderberry.
Within each species of elderberry, we find the named elderberry cultivars you’ll notice when you shop for elderberry plants, like ‘Adams,’ ‘Nova,’ ‘Johns,’ and so on.
You’ll often find people referring to these named plants as elderberry ‘varieties,’ but the elderberries you’ll find them describing are in fact cultivars, which is short for cultivated variety. Cultivars are plants selected and propagated by humans, while varieties are populations of plants that occur naturally and reproduce by seed. The named elderberry plants you’ll find for sale are cultivars, propagated by humans for their desirable traits, which don’t reliably reproduce from seed. You’ll also find plenty of unnamed elderberry plants, usually propagated from wild plants.
Since what you’re looking for is information on the best elderberry plants to grow and those plants are named cultivars, that’s what we’ll cover below.
I’ll also use the more common if not quite accurate terms ‘type’ and ‘variety’ for the sake of search engines, since those are the terms elderberry-curious web-searchers use most often. (Horticultural purists, I hope you’ll forgive the imprecision!)
For the purposes of the North American or European home gardener interested in growing elderberry, there are five key species to know about, described in the next section. Each cultivar or elderberry variety included in the list below belongs to one of these five species, or types of elderberry.
I hope that makes sense! Regardless, you’ll find a list of elderberry varieties (cultivars) to choose from toward the end of the post, and it should help you select the best elderberry plant for your garden whether or not you’ve followed the overly-complicated info above. 🙂
TYPES OF ELDERBERRY: SPECIES GROWN FOR FOOD & MEDICINE
Sambucus nigra (European Elderberry)
Sambucus nigra, sometimes called black elderberry or European elderberry, is the one you’ve likely had if you’ve purchased dried elderberries or elderberry syrup to use in herbal cough remedies or to give your immune system a little boost. Sambucus nigra is also the species that researchers have used in the numerous scientific studies exploring the health benefits of elderberries.
Nigra plants generally don’t do well in North America, though some plants may tolerate more temperate climates. You’ll find some so-called ‘ornamental’ varieties of elderberry for sale in North America that are Sambucus nigra.
Sambucus canadensis (North American Elderberry)
Some sources consider Sambucus canadensis its own species, while others classify it as a subspecies of Sambucus nigra. Sambucus canadensis grows primarily in the eastern half of North America.
Though scientists haven’t yet conducted human, animal, and in vitro trials of Sambucus canadensis as they have on Sambucus nigra, research comparing the composition of nigra and canadensis berries suggests they’re very similar to their European cousins in the medicinal compounds they contain. North American herbalists use wild-collected canadensis berries in their elderberry syrups, tinctures, and teas.
Tests conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri’s Elderberry Improvement Project also show that canadensis plants have far lower concentrations of cyanogenic glycosides, the compounds in elderberries that give some people stomach trouble.
Sambucus cerulea (Blue Elderberry)
Sambucus cerulea is native to the western parts of North America. Research on Sambucus cerulea is even scarcer than on Sambucus canadensis, and horticulturalists have yet to experiment with blue elderberry cultivars in the way they have with canadensis. While you’ll find dozens of named canadensis cultivars, you’ll find virtually everything called ‘blue elderberry’ or Sambucus cerulea or occasionally Sambucus glauca, velutina, or mexicana.
Don’t let the lack of named cultivars deter you, though. Blue elderberries are reportedly far tastier than their canadensis cousins and produce huge clusters of these gorgeous berries. If you live in a climate they like and have the room for these sometimes very large elderberry plants, go for it!
TYPES OF ELDERBERRY NOT USUALLY GROWN FOR FOOD
Two types of elderberry common in North America and Europe are often confused with the blue and black elderberry plants described above. Both have historically been used medicinally, but are high in the compounds that can make you very sick, especially if they’re not prepared properly. Most experts avoid consuming them, so if you’re hoping to harvest elderberries from your plants, best to stick with the types of elderberry listed above.
Sambucus racemosa (Red elderberry)
Sambucus racemosa, or red elderberry, grows wild in both North America and Europe and causes confusion among eager foragers every season. Native Americans used red elderberries for both food and medicine, and some people say cooking the berries renders them safe to eat. Others say they taste terrible and cause severe gastric distress. The ‘ornamental’ elderberries sold at many nurseries with yellowy leaves tend to be racemosa.
Sambucus Ebulus (Dwarf Elderberry)
Sambucus ebulus, or dwarf elderberry, was used as a very powerful medicine dating back to ancient Greece. Like Sambucus racemosa, some use the cooked berries medicinally, but those who’ve tried report the flavor to be very unappealing and more likely to cause severe digestive problems. This overview of Dwarf elder’s medicinal properties suggests cooking the berries eliminates toxicity.
Twentieth-century herbalist Maud Grieve reports, “The Dwarf Elder has more drastic therapeutic action than the Common Elder, and it is only the leaves, or very occasionally the berries, that are used medicinally.” She notes that “A rob made from the berries is actively purgative.” If that’s not what you’re after, do stick with the types of elderberry listed in the section above!
Grieve also notes,
In the United States, the name of Dwarf Elder is given to an entirely different plant, viz. Aralia hispida (N.O. Araliaceae). In Homoeopathy, it is the American Dwarf Elder which is employed. There it is also called Bristly Sarsaparilla and Wild Elder. It is found growing in rocky places in North America.
Just another instance that reminds us it’s always a good idea to check the botanical name of a plant, as common names can vary so widely.
Native to Europe, Sambucus ebulus has been introduced in northeastern North America, according to the U. S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
WHICH TYPES OF ELDERBERRY TO GROW
To re-cap the info on types of elderberry above:
- If you live in Europe, nigra type of elderberry is likely the best choice
- If you live in eastern North America, a canadensis type of elderberry is probably the best choice, but you may get away with nigra if your climate doesn’t get too cold or too hot
- If you live in western North America a cerulea type of elderberry is likely the best choice
In the section describing individual elderberry varieties or cultivars, I’ve broken the list up according to region.
All of these types of elderberry will yield edible flowers and berries you can use to make elderflower tea and numerous other elderflower recipes, elderberry tea, homemade elderberry syrup, tinctures, wine, and so much more. You’ll find 62 inspiring recipes in my book to help you make the most of your elderberry crop!
WHICH ELDERBERRY VARIETIES ARE BEST?
Now that we have all that taxonomic information squared away, it’s time to choose which cultivars or elderberry varieties to grow.
I get asked often which varieties of elderberry are best, and the answer really depends on what you’re after. Most people asking about the best elderberry varieties are wondering which is the best elderberry plant for medicine to maximize elderberries’ medicinal properties.
Unfortunately, science hasn’t yet given us solid information on each elderberry cultivar’s composition, and growing conditions may affect it quite dramatically. Some studies have found that berries growing at different elevations vary in their concentrations of polyphenols, for instance.
As mentioned above, it’s the European elderberry, Sambucus nigra, that’s gotten nearly all the scientific attention, but that’s largely because roughly 95% of the elderberries available commercially are nigra berries grown in Europe. If you’re intent on using only berries with research behind them, you’ll need to go with a nigra elderberry plant, which unfortunately won’t grow well in much of North America. Some herbalists believe the Haschberg cultivar to be the best elderberry plant for medicine, while many North American herbalists prefer wild-harvested elderberries.
Canadensis and cerulea elderberries have been used for centuries for very similar purposes to their nigra cousins and are rich in the same medicinal compounds.
More important than which elderberry varieties you select for your garden, how you process the berries after harvest will have a much greater impact on how much of their valuable compounds they retain. Not heating them too much or storing them in the freezer too long will help preserve medicinal compounds, and you have far greater control over this part of your elderberry’s medicinal value than over the precise chemical composition of the elderberry varieties you select.
The elderberry variety that’s best for your garden is the one with the attributes suited to your growing conditions, such as how much space you have and what climate you live in. After considering the area of the world you live in (Europe, eastern North America, western North America), your growing zone, and the mature size of the plant read the descriptions and decide if you care most about large flower heads, sweetness of fruit, and so on.
HOW DO ELDERBERRY VARIETIES DIFFER FROM ONE ANOTHER?
With the exception of so-called ‘ornamental’ elderberry varieties, which have dark purple or lime-green leaves, the elderberry cultivars you’ll be choosing among primarily differ in size, yield, and flavor of the fruit. Some will have larger or more abundant flower heads or berry clusters, or leaf shape may vary a bit, but from an aesthetic perspective, there’s not a lot of difference among the elderberry varieties you can buy.
Whether its mature size will be a compact 5 or 6 feet or a sprawling 12-foot hedge will be the bigger visible impact of your choice of elderberry plant.
Elderberry cultivars can vary widely from one another in hardiness, yield, and flavor, so those considerations are uppermost in most food gardeners’ minds when choosing among elderberry varieties.
–> Note that you will sometimes find plants for sale called “common elderberry,” “American elderberry,” or just “elderberry.” These are usually cuttings taken from wild plants, and unless the seller can give you details about the parent plant, you’ll know nothing about its mature size, yield, or flavor. You may also wind up with a plant not suited to your climate that won’t do well in your garden.
Because so many elderberry varieties have been selected for superior performance in these areas, it makes more sense to choose one of the named elderberry cultivars that’s been propagated with the traits you desire rather than rolling the dice with these unknowns. You’ll likely have this elderberry plant in your garden for decades, so best to choose one you’ll be happiest to have, right?
CHOOSING THE BEST ELDERBERRY VARIETIES FOR YOUR GARDEN
As I’ve mentioned, once you know the type of elderberry plant best suited to your region, you should consider your growing zone and available space, followed by the desired attribute of the plants.
Growing zone: For those of you in extreme climates like mine, you’ll be happy to hear that some elderberries can produce in growing zones as cold as 3. Some can tolerate hotter climates down to zone 10.
Mature size: One of the primary things to consider in selecting elderberry plants for the home garden is the space you have. While some elderberry cultivars remain pretty compact at 5-6 feet wide and high, others can get over 12 feet tall! If you have a smaller garden like mine, you’ll want to stick with the smaller elderberry varieties. If you’re after a big hedgerow, one of the more sprawling types of elderberry make more sense and will likely give you bigger harvests.
Below are some of the more commonly recommended edible elderberry varieties or cultivars you might find for sale at a nursery or online. Many others exist, but they’re not easy to come by, and these elderberry cultivars have gained popularity because of their desirable characteristics.
Be sure to pick a cultivar suited to your growing conditions and space. In my small edible yard, I’ve gone with ‘Ranch’ and ‘York,’ two of the most compact options. If I had more room, I would absolutely give ‘Marge’ a try, as it’s a top-performing elderberry variety in University of Missouri trials.
Do I Need More than One Elderberry Cultivar?
You’ll often see a recommendation to plant at least two different elderberry varieties or cultivars, but the researchers I spoke to said in most cases it isn’t necessary. However, they noted, there are advantages to getting more than one elderberry variety, as you may find some do better in your specific growing conditions than others, plus plant diversity is just generally a good idea. With multiple elderberry varieties, you’ll improve your odds of a good yield, extend your season for harvesting flowers and berries, and create a longer window for feeding pollinators.
Growing more than one plant (whether the same or different cultivars) within 50 feet of one another reportedly helps to increase yields.
Best Elderberry Varieties for Eastern North American Gardens
‘Ranch’—Numerous growers I spoke with recommended ‘Ranch’ as exceptionally adaptable and tolerant of a range of conditions including poor soils better than many other cultivars. Reaching only 5 to 6 feet tall, ‘Ranch’ is one of the most compact options available. Grows in zones 3–8.
‘Bob Gordon’—Commercial growers singled out ‘Bob Gordon’ for its large, sweeter-than-average fruit and exceptional yields. 6 to 8 feet tall, grows in zones 4–8.
‘Marge’—A cultivar with nigra heritage that performs well in North America, in a study at the University of Missouri, Marge produced up to three times as much fruit and showed better disease resistance than canadensis types of elderberry. Considered “exceptionally robust and drought-resistant,” Marge has larger berries than many other cultivars. Reaching 6 to 12 feet tall, growing larger in more temperate climates. Grows in zones 3–10.
‘York’—Another compact option topping out at 6 feet tall and wide, York is one of the more readily-available cultivars. Some growers I spoke to said ‘York’ berries have less flavor and sweetness than other cultivars, but at least one thought they’re one of the most flavorful. Higher-yielding cultivar. Grows in zones 3–8.
‘Wyldewood’—Very productive, prized for enormous flower heads and often preferred by those who make elderberry wine. Later season than most, reaching 5 to 8 feet tall and wide. Grows in zones 3–8.
‘Adams’—’Adams’ produces large flowerheads and berry clusters and reaches 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. Grows in zones 3–9.
‘Johns’—A larger cultivar, ‘Johns’ can get 10 to 12 feet tall and wide. Berry clusters are exceptionally large, but overall yield is smaller than Adams. Grows in zones 4–8.
‘Nova’—A compact variety growing 6 feet tall and wide, ‘Nova’ reportedly produces a good yield of large berries. Grows in zones 4–8.
You’ll find other named cultivars out there, but these are the most often recommended and the most readily available. If you’re curious about additional options, the University of Vermont lists a number in their elderberry guide.
Patrick Byers of the University of Missouri Elderberry Improvement Project has a presentation with more details and history of the cultivars they’ve studied.
Best Elderberry Varieties for Western North American Gardens
Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) — I have not come across anyone propagating named cultivars of blue elderberry, though you may find the terms ‘glauca,’ ‘mexicana,’ or ‘velutina.’ Plants labeled mexicana will likely be the most drought-tolerant, having originated in the arid conditions of the southwest. Occasionally a mexicana plant may be Sambucus canadensis, so it’s best to ask to make sure you know what you’re getting.
Sambucus cerulea typically grows in a tree form reaching 20 to over 30 feet tall, producing large quantities of blue fruits reported to be far tastier than canadensis. Sambucus cerulea‘s native range spans zones 6 to 10. Consider buying your blue elderberry from a local nursery to make it more likely that it’s suited to your conditions.
Depending on your specific local climate, you may be able to grow canadensis as well. It’s best to speak with someone at a local nursery to find an elderberry variety that will tolerate conditions in your area.
Best Elderberry Varieties for European Gardens
Many sellers carry plants simply called ‘black elderberry,’ in which case you should ask about its characteristics (size, fruit, production, etc.). Common European elderberries can get quite tall and are often found in large hedgerows.
You might find a few named cultivars for sale. The ones below are the most common, in part because their more compact size lends itself to smaller gardens and commercial cultivation. They’re also noted for their productivity.
‘Haschberg’— ‘Haschberg’ is the most popular variety for European commercial production, producing large yields of flavorful berries. 6 to 8 feet tall. Grows in zones 4–9.
‘Samdal’ and ‘Samyl’— High-yielding cultivars growing 6 to 8 feet tall but only 2 to 5 feet wide. Samyl reported to have slightly better yields. Grows in zones 3–8.
If you’re one of my European readers and know more about locally-available elderberry varieties, please share your wisdom in the comments and I’ll update the post.
‘Ornamental’ Elderberry Varieties
All the plants listed below are Sambucus nigra. They’re considered ornamental because they have lacy purple or variegated leaves. The flowers and fruit are both edible, though yields likely won’t be as great as the elderberry varieties selected for fruit production listed above.
‘Black Lace’—‘Black Lace’ has dark purple foliage and pink flowers with a lemony scent, 6 to 8 feet tall and wide. Grows in zones 4–7.
‘Black Beauty’—‘Black Lace’ has purple foliage and pink flowers. One elderflower researcher I spoke with thinks Black Beauty’s flowers may have a superior flavor. 8 to 15 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide. Grows in zones 4–8.
‘Variegata’—‘Variegata’ has attractive variegated green and white leaves, but is less productive than many other cultivars. Reaches up to 13 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Grows in zones 4–10.
‘Instant Karma’—Like ‘Variegata,’ ‘Instant Karma’ has variegated green and white leaves. Grows 6 to 8 feet high and wide. Zones 4–7.
Note that some elderberry cultivars sold as ‘ornamental’ are Sambucus racemosa (red elderberry), which are not generally recommended for consumption. ‘Lemony lace’ is one of the more common cultivars you’ll find.
WHERE TO GET ELDERBERRY CUTTINGS AND STARTS
This post on growing elderberries explains the different methods you can choose to propagate elderberries. You may be able to find some elderberry varieties as potted plants, but they can be expensive, and propagating elderberries from cuttings is not difficult and far less expensive. Elderberries do not grow true-to-type from seed, so if you start your elderberry plants from seed, you’ll have no guarantee what characteristics the mature plant may have.
Your local nursery may sell some elderberry varieties as potted plants, but many only carry the ornamental types of elderberry. You may find some of the more common elderberry cultivars, like York, as well. To get the less common elderberry varieties, you’ll probably need to look online or find someone in your area growing them who’d be willing to give you a cutting.
If you know someone with an elderberry plant that suits your conditions, you can get your own elderberry cutting from them. Because plants can vary so widely in height and productivity, though, I’d advise against taking cuttings without first being sure it’s a plant you actually want.
If you’re lucky, the gardener will know what cultivar they have, but if they don’t, be sure to find out how much fruit the plant produces, how the berries taste, and how big the plant is at maturity.
You can also buy cuttings and plant starts from local growers and nurseries, and many online sellers. A Google search for “elderberry growers near me” might find you a local farm where you could buy a cutting. Localharvest.org is another possible venue to explore.
Note that elderberry plants and cuttings tend to sell out, and many sellers take orders in late fall and ship cuttings in winter.
Below are some of the leading options for buying elderberry plants and cuttings online:
- Norm’s Farms—currently carrying plant starts of Bob Gordon & York
- Edible Acres—cuttings and plant starts of harder-to-find elderberry varieties like Marge, but sold out now
- River Hills Harvest—cuttings and bare-root plants of Wyldewood, Bob Gordon, Ranch, Adams & limited release of Pocohontas
- Raintree Nursery —wide selection, including nigra cultivars and ornamentals
- Hirt’s Gardens—plant starts of Bob Gordon, Wyldewood, Black Lace, Instant Karma, Lemony Lace
- Stark Bro’s—plant starts of Adams, Johns, Nova, Wyldewood, & York
You will also find small sellers here and there selling unnamed cultivars they call “black elderberry,” “American elderberry,” or just “elderberry.” Unless you can find out some of the parent plant’s characteristics, I’d take a pass on these offerings as well, as you have absolutely no idea what you’d be getting.
Most Etsy sellers don’t specify what type of elderberry they’re selling, and give zero information on height, yield, or flavor. But a few do:
OzarkMtnPlants carries Adams, York, and Wyldewood.
Growers Solution sells 2-gallon pots of Ranch, Johns, and Adams
You may be able to source some unusual elderberry varieties from enthusiasts in Facebook groups devoted to elderberries. This one focuses exclusively on selling and trading elderberry cuttings, root crowns, seeds, and plants.
Once you’ve gotten your elderberry plants producing for you, it’s important to know how to use them safely and effectively. Fill in the form below to sign up for HealthyGreenSavvy’s weekly newsletter, and get a free guide to using elderberry as a welcome gift.
Which types of elderberry do you plan to grow in your garden? What are your favorite elderberry varieties? Please let us know in the comments!
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Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.