Some gardeners will read the headline with a little surprise – cut elderberries? Looking for the elderberry at the next roadside and then simply cutting it off? No, of course not, ever since people noticed that they weren’t really doing their bodies any good with cheap-cheap food, gardening and harvesting started again – including elderberries, which are super healthy. So that you can harvest, the gardening activity “Hole in the ground, put elder root in, close the hole” is enough. If you want to harvest elderflowers and elderberries and lots of both, the elder needs to be pruned properly.
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Does an elder have to be cut at all?
To make it very clear in advance: An elder does not have to be cut. If you have just inherited a romantic old farmhouse or a beautiful city villa with a huge garden, you can simply let the elder grow.
Cut elderberry, annual care cut
In order to cut an elder, you do not have to attend a tree pruning course with precise explanations of the Öschberg-Palmer cut or a chainsaw course – what you need to know about the basic pruning of an elder can be reduced to a short sentence:
One-year-old knots stay on
A bit imprecise? Sure, but an elderberry is pruning tolerant enough that you can clip away whatever you want. It will also drive out the one-year-old branches, even the entire elderberry, if a root residue remains. This mnemonic only succinctly indicates the direction that is important when pruning elderberries – since old branches (brownish, furrowed, cracked, with cork pimples) and new branches (smooth and light grey) on elderberries are easy to distinguish, you could get started and a well-pruned elder would come out.
- Elder grows up to 11 meters tall and grows with strong branching
- Plant forms several long, unbranched shoots in the first year
- may remain in place unless pruning is already required to look for a high yield
- In the second year, many short side shoots grow on these main shoots
- Lateral shoots set flowers in the following year, on which the fruit develops
- After the harvest in August/September (by you or by enthusiastic birds) it is time for pruning
- If maximum yield is not important, you can cut back the elder as you wish
- all around, wherever something has to go that disturbs the harmonious form
- First the removed shoots
- usually shorten by a third
- if elderberries are to remain very small, half of the old shoots can be removed
- Then carry out this pruning every year when elderberry is to remain small
- Elderberry has a strong will to survive, the harder the pruning, the stronger the new growth
- So it is better to cut a little every year than a lot every three years if you want the elder to remain dainty
- if in doubt, choose a variety for small gardens
- The way to a harmonious shrub shape: The central shoot is the longest shoot, the surrounding main shoots remain shorter
- Sloping to the sides, towards a cone or triangle shape
- If more branching is desired, you should prune as many shoots as possible
- If the elder is branched enough, you can only cut the old fruit shoots
- Pruning can be done until about mid-October
- If your elder has enough room to grow, you can prune as little as every two or three years
- only the fresh branches with smooth light gray bark have to remain if you want to see flowers
- in an emergency, an elderberry can actually be cut at any time
- Broken or nibbled twigs and new shoots that are growing at random should be removed promptly
Flower and fruit pruning
Lots of blossoms and berries for the syrups, and there should be some left over for the jam. This only works if you cut the elder regularly.
Provided you have the right elder, an original elder (wild form) or one of the yielding cultivars. There are also modern cultivars that are bred just for looks. Their yield will not be too lavish even with the best fruit pruning, more on this below under “Pruning peculiarities”.
Fruit pruning works in a similar way to maintenance pruning, but regular pruning is essential for high fruit yields:
- In autumn, if possible, cut back every harvested fruit shoot
- Ten to twelve vigorous shoots grown this season are selected to bear the next crop
- Select the branches whose roots are closest to the base
- Then the elder can supply all fruit shoots with nutrients well and evenly
- You should keep an eye on new growth throughout the spring
- If a shoot develops poorly or is unfavorably placed, it is removed in the spring
- If you repeat this every year, you will always have a dozen strong fruit sprouts “at the start”
Pull elderberry to the stem
Elderberry is not only trendy in the home garden. Due to the great demand for elderberry products in Germany, it is grown on over 550 hectares, and in Austria even more. You could learn a little from professional growing if you’re short on space and still want to harvest elderberries:
The fruit growers do not grow the elder as a shrub, but as a tree with only one trunk. This growth form has several advantages:
- Elder tree can be planted at a total height of approx. 1.5 m for easy harvesting
- Elderberry needs much less space in this form of training
- Root area is easy to care for, mulch etc.
- Branches at the top are more vigorous than the branches at the base
- Elderberry with a crown forms plenty of fruit wood and also bears plenty
High-stem elderberries are sometimes sold; if you don’t find what you are looking for, you can grow your own high trunk, no rocket science with an elderberry:
- In winter, cut a 1 m shoot from the elder on the railway embankment or from the superbly productive noble elder of the garden friends
- Put them in the ground without roots and wait for them to sprout in spring
- When this is done, any side shoots below the desired base of the crown are removed
- That remains your task throughout the life of the elder tree
- If you don’t remove the new shoots for a while, you’ll soon have an elderberry bush.
- The vertical leader (stem) may grow up to 1.20 m (or to your desired height), this is about the middle of the crown base
- At this height, the shoot tip is cut off, just below it, many side shoots form, which are pulled towards the crown
- The top five or six of them will become the main shoots of the crown
- They are strongly encouraged to branch out in the next season
- Each new shoot is shortened as soon as it is strong enough
- You should keep this up until shortly before St. John’s Day (24 June).
- On this date, the “normal Central European plant” completes its budding
Taper pruning of an elderberry
If you have taken over a garden with old stock, you might find an elder whose new shoots appear a few meters high. Hardly anyone used to think of cutting an elder; if you have purchased an old building, the elder may have grown uncut for a long time, which often looks like a kind of elder thicket.
Such a thicket needs a vigorous pruning if the elder is to produce fruiting wood again at achievable heights. Not the slightest problem with an elderberry:
- Rejuvenation pruning is done in winter/early spring because it encourages budding
- During a period of frost-free days when extreme night frosts are no longer to be expected
- This is the case in most regions of Germany from the end of February
- You can cut off as much of the elder as you like
- For example every second old, thick branch inside and almost all fruit shoots, old and new
- Except for the dozen seasonal shoots that are to bear the next harvest, see fruit pruning
- You can also simply cut the elder down almost to the ground
- Even then it will drive out again unimpressed
- This is recommended if it has grown so intertwined that you can no longer see how to thin it out
- Flowers and fruit naturally fall out in the season following the radical pruning
- They can only be seen again in the season after, on the wood of the growth period after the year of cutting (biennial wood)
The cutting characteristics of the elderberry varieties
Our elder, the common or black elder Sambucus nigra, is the best known of the more than 25 elder species of the elder genus (Sambucus) and one of the most common shrub species in Central Europe. The more popular the elderberry has become in recent times, the more cultivars are emerging. These cultivars are selected with different goals, which also affects the cutting characteristics:
- ‘Albovariegata’ Sambucus nigra: Variety of leaves only in quite sunny locations, which needs regular pruning for a beautiful coloring of the foliage.
- ‘Black Beauty’ Sambucus nigra: Black foliage, pink flowers, lemon-like fragrance, rich fruit set, grows compactly and requires comparatively little pruning.
- ‘Black Tower’ Sambucus nigra: columnar growth, elderberry for small gardens and containers, good yield, benefits from pruning.
- ‘Donau’ Sambucus nigra: Quite weak growth and therefore little need for pruning, production sites with a harvest from the end of August.
- ‘Haschberg’ Sambucus nigra: Grows vigorously and only produces plenty of the promised thick, juicy berries if the fruit is pruned regularly.
- ‘Hamburg’ (‘Schwarzer Diamant’) Sambucus nigra: Grows very upright and very vigorously, after a not very lavish harvest in the second half of September, a strong fruit pruning is due.
- ‘Laciniata’ Sambucus nigra: Does not form any shoots on the ground, grows nice and bushy even without regular pruning, then has to be rejuvenated after a few years.
- ‘Giant from Voßloch’ Sambucus nigra: well-known fruit variety with large nectar-rich flower umbels (for elderflower syrup) and vigorous growth, which must be steered in the right direction by pruning the fruit.
- White elder, Sambucus nigra var. albida: Is pruned like the common (wild) elder, but the light-colored, fairly sweet berries do not stain children’s clothing (adults can harvest elder with scissors without stains).
It was not without reason that our ancestors regarded the elder as the tree of life. Its will to survive is legendary, an elderberry will sprout from even the smallest stalk no matter when you cut it (even if there are good times for certain pruning goals).