American elder: growth rate, height, spread – ultimate guide

american elderberry elder growth rate size

Elder trees are an awesome addition to properties, because they’re attractive, tolerant to most soils, and especially because you get your own harvest of elderberries! But you might have heard the arborists’ mantra – ‘plant the right tree in the right place’.

These bushes have a habit of getting unruly, so it’s important to know what to expect from American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). How big’s it going to get, and how fast? What about its tendency to grow suckers? Can you control the size? Are the roots invasive?

As a general rule, American elder bushes gain more than 2 feet in height each year when they have access to adequate sunlight and water.

How fast does American elder grow?

American elder is a fast-growing shrub, typically gaining at least 2 feet of height per year in ideal conditions, especially in its first couple of years.

It tends to reach its full mature size and width within 3-5 years, but might take longer if conditions aren’t optimal for the shrub – more on that later.

How tall does American elder get?

Most agree that the typical mature height for an American elder is between 5 and 12 feet. So, about the height of one, or at most two people.

Fortunately, this is an ideal height for harvesting berries, but it’s definitely more of a bush than a tree. This contrasts it somewhat with the European elder and the blue elder, which both have taller and slightly more tree-like form.

European elder, Sambucus nigra
European elder, Sambucus nigra
Blue elder sambucus cerulea
Blue elder, Sambucus cerulea

It doesn’t get a lot taller than this as the years pass because it tends to expend its energy on sending out side shoots – ‘suckers’, which can take root and develop into new elder trees.

How far will American elder spread out?

In general, American elder spreads out about the same distance as it grows upwards – typically, 5 to 12 feet for a full-grown shrub.

This makes it roughly dome-shaped and approximately as wide as a driveway, on average. The lowest branches are usually quite close to the ground, making it difficult to mow around.

Elderberry bush not growing? How to make it grow faster

Sambucus canadensis elder height
Sambucus canadensis growing next to water

Before you actually plant, it’s important to choose a site that gets at least some direct sunlight – for 6 hours a day at least. A site that faces north (if you’re reading from the northern hemisphere!) is unlikely to be right for this tree. It actually grows best (and produces elderberries best) in FULL sun.

Thereafter, there are two big things that you can do to make it grow faster.

Watering your elderberry bush for fast growth

I’m not talking about a splash of water when you remember. These trees will survive a spell of drought, but they’re not going to put on growth if they’re struggling to find water.

I’d say that a young elderberry bush needs 5 to 10 gallons of water a week. If there’s been heavy rain that week, you could always examine the soil by opening a 3-4 inch deep slit of earth with a trowel to see if it’s wet. If it doesn’t feel damp, water it!

You’re not likely to overwater this plant using the above method, unless your ground is heavy clay or seems marshy. You’ll reap the dividends when you see how quickly this bush grows,

Those bushes that have already reached their maximum size (see above) don’t need regular watering except in very dry spells – but it may help the tree to produce more berries (read about everything that affects berry production and how to greatly increase your yield here).

Fertilizing your elderberry bush for fast growth

If you aren’t already applying fertilizer, it’s a low-effort but key activity to give your elderberry the means to grow vigorously.

Nitrogen-heavy fertilizers are the ones that encourage leaves and shoots, but with elder, it’s generally the flowers and berries that people are after. So I’d recommend a ‘complete’ fertilizer with higher phosphate and potassium content, relative to nitrogen.

You’d also want a slow-release one, where you’re less likely to damage the delicate root hairs on this species.

Jobe’s Fruit and Citrus fertilizer spikes are ideal for elderberry bushes. Check the price on Amazon via this affiliate link.

Read all about problems with elderberry bushes (and how to get a much better berry crop in my post here!

How do you stop elderberry from spreading

Elderberry bushes’ tendency to send out side shoots (suckers) means that new elderberry bush clones will appear alongside older ones. This is an advantage when growing in the wild, but not so great in your yard.

Just cut off or remove these ground-level shoots when you see them, or mow over them.

Pruning elderberry to limit size

Read here for some in-depth info on the options (there are several, with pros and cons) for how and when to prune elderberry!

Does American elderberry have invasive roots?

Elders have fairly shallow roots. American elderberry does not grow large enough for the roots to cause any issues. It’s normally safe to plant elderberry bushes near buildings, walls, driveways and pipes.

Are elderberry trees messy?

Sambucus canadensis American elderberries
American elderberries

The ‘messiness’ of elderberry comes from the rather untidy fashion in which the bush can spreads at ground level via its suckers. Pick the berries yourself and use them to make wine or jam, or leave them to the birds – they won’t usually make a mess of your property.

Image attribution:

Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Willow, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fredlyfish4, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cmeusburger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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