Elderberry tree lacking berries? How to diagnose and fix easily


elderberries sambucus nigra ripening in september
My (European) elderberries look almost ripe (taken in mid-September).

Elder trees are usually reliable at producing large crops of dark purple berries from late summer to autumn, so a specimen that isn’t producing much fruit usually has an issue of some sort.

The good news is that it’s possible to identify and fix it, with a little systematic thinking.

As a general rule, elderberry trees don’t produce for their first 2-3 years. While they are strictly self-pollinating, berry production can be limited unless another elder is planted nearby. Ill-timed pruning, lack of water and sunlight, soil pH issues and fungal disease can all affect berry yield.

Watching the elderflowers make way for berries is a fond memory of many a summer for me. Being obsessed with trees, I’ve always taken a huge interest in why one elder differs from another.

I’d love to break it down for you and share what I’ve learned from my years of experience and from my library of horticulture and arboriculture books.


“Elderberries aren’t actually berries. Strictly speaking, they’re drupes”

— Me, answering the question nobody asked

Firstly… what are the types of elder trees?

Not all are the same. The two main species are native to different parts of the world – European or common elder, Sambucus nigra, and American elder, Sambucus canadensis (click here to find out more). So you’ll find Sambucus nigra growing everywhere in UK forests, but in yards in the USA.

The difference between American and European elder

These two species are similar in most respects, except that the American elder:

  1. Is slightly hardier to low temperatures
  2. Is a smaller, shrubbier tree than its European cousin, growing to about half the height
  3. Has fruit isn’t quite as dark in colour
  4. Usually has 2 more leaflets per compound leaf (typically 7, while European elder usually has 5)
  5. Blooms a month later than the European elder.

Red-berried elder, Sambucus racemosa, is similar to European elder, but smaller and with red berries instead of dark purple. It grows natively across North America, Europe and Asia.

Blue elder, Sambucus cerulea, grows naturally along the west coast of North America, but is found as an ornamental tree elsewhere. It’s more tree-like (than shrub-like) in its form. You might notice it by its berries, which are actually black but covered in a powdery blue-white coating.

The advice in this post is mostly written with European and American elderberries in mind – but there’s so much in common with blue and red-berry elderberry that it’ll be highly applicable if you have these trees, too.

When do elder trees start to produce fruit?

Elder trees usually produce fruit within 2-3 years of planting, or occasionally within the first year.

Those grown from seed might take a little longer – perhaps 3-4 years. Elders grow well from cuttings though, so the vast majority of elderberries sold in nurseries are propagated in this well.

So if your elderberry’s young, consider giving it another season or two first to let it produce. It’s just important that it has the right conditions – read on.

What time of year do elders flower?

Elders produce clusters of tiny white flowers early in the early summer, between late April and early July in the northern hemisphere, the variation depending on location and the species of elder.

Red-berry elder is typically the first to flower, in April. European elder and blue elder usually follow in June, while American elder typically flowers in July ¹.

If you haven’t got any flowers by July, you won’t have berries either. This can be a sign of ill health, which I’ll explore later.

What time of year do elder trees usually produce berries?

Elderberries start off firm and green, soon after the petals have dropped in late summer, and are ripe for picking between August and September, or occasionally as late as October.

European and American elderberries are ripe when they’re heavy, juicy and a very deep purple-to-black colour. You’ll know they’re mature when you see it – the smaller branches are laden down by their weight. The abundant clusters are a sight to behold.

Red-berry elder’s fruits tend to be ripe earlier, in June or July (in step with its earlier flowering, in April).

Sambucus nigra elderberries ripening
I took this photo in mid-July, just when European elderberries are beginning the slow ripening process.

Are elderberry trees self-fertile?

In other words, can they produce fruit all by themselves, or do they need another elder tree nearby to get pollen from?

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. All of the elderberry species can pollinate and produce fruit when planted alone – but to varying degrees. They have both male and female flowers, and wind and insects can transfer pollen from male to female.

But in common with many other trees, you can expect a lot more fruit if another elderberry tree is planted nearby, so the trees can cross-pollinate (pollinate each other). This creates the all-valuable property of genetic diversity.

SO, if you’ve only got one elderberry tree, your underproduction of elderberries might be due to the lack of a pollinating neighbour. Planting another elderberry on your property could be the answer.

A classic pairing is made of two American elderberry cultivars – ‘Adams’ and ‘York’. US visitors can buy both on Naturehills.com. US sellers Fast-growing trees.com sell a pollinating pair together – ‘Adams’ and ‘John’ – another favorite combination. ‘John’ in particular makes very large fruit clusters. You’ll have a mini elderberry orchard in no time.

How does pruning affect elderberry production?

Unless your elderberry’s growing in a wide open space, you’re likely to have to prune it sooner or later. These trees can become untidy as it spreads out by ground-level shoots – ‘suckers’ – especially Sambucus canadensis (read about the growth rate, size and spread of American elderberry in my post here).

As a general rule, elderberry trees should not be pruned for the first 2-3 years until they’re established. Thereafter, pruning can be done in after the elderberry harvest and before new growth begins i.e. between late autumn and early spring.

Resist the temptation to prune or shape between mid-spring and summer, because these trees predominantly produce flowers and berries on the current year’s new growth – you’d be cutting off those very shoots. You may get a few elderberry’s growing from last year’s shoots, but fewer still or none from the previous year’s growth. The woodier the branch, the less likely elderberries will come from it.

If a friend has had a poor elderberry crop this year and asks me for advice, one of the first things I’ll want to know is if they’ve pruned their tree recently – and when it was done! Of course, most gardeners spend most time around their trees in summer, so often (incorrectly) prune then!

There are different options if you do want to prune:

  • taking 6 inches off every year – this will encourage new shoots and new berries
  • pruning only to keep the desired shape – the best option for tidiness
  • pruning the elderberry almost to the ground – useful for American elderberry in particular, as it’ll soon grow back up again as a low bush – easy to reach those elderberries.

Most gardeners will want to cut or rub off those ‘suckers’ (adventurous ground-level shoots) before they take root and make a new elderberry tree.

Have you got any dead, dying or broken branches? You can cut those off any time.

It’s on my to-do list to make a video, but in the meantime I think this is a useful one – full of excellent little tips.

Pruning Elder

Sun, soil and water requirements for elderberries fruit

Sun is particularly important when it comes to elderberries. These trees will grow in full sun or in partial shade, but the ones in full sun tend to bring out the best yields.

If your elderberry’s in the shade for the majority of the day, it’s unlikely that it’ll ever produce that well.

Second most important is having access to plenty of water. Elders can survive some droughty spells, but producing lots of berries is a different matter. If the soil’s drying out frequently, the tree will always conserve that water to focus on staying alive first and foremost and delay on making many berries until next year.

How much water does an elderberry need? A 20-minute hose soak once a week from spring to autumn will do for most. The oft-quoted rule is 5-10 gallons per inch of trunk diameter is a useful guide for young trees – that’s just a large bucket once a week. For clear-stemmed trees, a Treegator or similar watering bag is the absolute best way (check the price via on Amazon via this affiliate link).

An easy hack (more like an essential practice) is applying mulch over the root zone of your elderberry tree, if you haven’t already. Preferably, use an organic one, such as bark chippings, that will slowly decompose, acting as a slow-release fertilizer.

Mulch traps moisture for the tree’s roots instead of letting it run off. It should be 2-3 inches thick, but leave a small gap around the trunk, so it isn’t actually touching it. When mulch is piled up around the trunk, it can lead to rot.

mulch bark chipping
Glorious mulch and my hand

That said, elder trees don’t like marshy soil and won’t produce well if the roots are waterlogged, so check for any standing water under the canopy.

The usual optimal pH for elder growth and berry production is slightly acidic – pH (5.5 to 6.5). Too alkaline (above 7) and this interferes with root nutrient transfer and is damaging both to growth and berry production.

Do you know your soil’s pH? If not, owning a pH meter is a true hands-on gardening hack. They’re as useful as they are inexpensive. I use those made by Rapitest (they use the proper ‘logarithmic scale’, so are more accurate than others). Check out the price on Amazon for the quick-read meter and the manual tester.

Rapitest Luster Leaf pH meter
My trusty meter

Birds are eating my elderberries

Just something to be aware of here. All kinds of birds are attracted to elderberries, and they even seem to acquire a local taste for them. It’s not unheard of that they get consumed almost as soon as they appear (especially red-berry elder fruits). I’d dissuade you from trying to scare them off though – instead, you should let the birds do their thing. You’re encouraging wildlife to thrive – something all gardeners should want to do!

Will fertilising the tree help berry production?

Yes, most likely it will! While elder trees can usually survive without fertilizer, they can thrive when they’re given it. Much like humans – the better the diet, the healthier they will be!

Look for a ‘complete’ fertilizer, i.e one containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or NPK. A standard N:P:K ratio is 10:10:10, but fertilizers designed for fruit production will often be a little higher in potassium and phosphorus, and lower in nitrogen. Nitrogen usually promotes green growth – sometimes at the expense of flowers and fruit.

A slow-release fertilizer, for most gardeners, is superior in every way. There’s much more chance of the tree receiving a steady diet of essential nutrients, and much less chance of overdoing it, or harming the delicate hairs on the tree’s roots.

I love using Jobe’s tree spikes – the ultimate gradual release preparation and extremely easy to administer. They do one specifically for encouraging fruit production, which is higher in P and K than in nitrogen (8:11:11) – ideal for elderberries. Check the price on Amazon via this affiliate link.

Diseases that can affect elderberry production

Elderberry trees, thankfully, aren’t hugely disease prone. It’s not likely

However, there are a couple of diseases that every elderberry gardener should be aware of.

Canker diseases

Yes, elder trees get canker diseases – oozing, sunken or raised wounds found on the branches, which interrupt the vital cambium layer of the bark, ‘girdling’ (cutting off) the flow of nutrients to that branch.

It’s worth heading outside to inspect your elder for any such cankers – particularly if you see leaves dying or falling off on just one or a few individual branches.

Botryosphaeria canker (or bot canker) is probably the most significant type to be aware of. I’ve written more about bot canker (and how to control it with just a little effort) here.

Botryosphaeria canker
Bot canker on an ash tree

Powdery mildew

This is a really common fungal disease worldwide. It causes a dusty white coating on the leaves of elderberry trees. When it’s advanced, it can settle on the berries themselves. Read more about powdery mildew here.

Sometimes it does little harm – more of a cosmetic concern that doesn’t stop the tree from thriving. The trouble starts if it spreads unchecked and gets onto the berries themselves. This is more likely in wet, cool autumn – ideal conditions for powdery mildew.

While you can reduce the spread by removing infected leaves and disposing of them, some fungicide spray is a good idea – start as soon as you see any signs of powdery mildew (or if your tree was infected last year, start the following year before it appears – because it almost certainly will come back.

This Fung-Onil spray (containing chlorthalonil) is what I usually recommend if you’re in the USA. Go for this one by Bayer if you’re in the UK (Amazon affiliate links).

Leaf spots on elder

There’s a host of other fungal organisms around that can cause some leaf spots – usually dark brown or black. But these tend not to cause any major problems with elderberry, or affect the berry yield much.

If the appearance of them bothers you, snip those leaves off, lift them and put dispose of them (or burn them!). Don’t leave them lying on the ground, to release spores back onto the tree again.

Similarly, rake up all the leaves that fall from this deciduous tree and put them in the bin! Try to get every one!

My elderberry isn’t producing berries – a summary

To try to make this post as helpful as possible, I’ve made a checklist that you can refer back to!

  1. If it’s only been planted for a year or two, just give it more time
  2. Check the reference guide above – is it the right time of year for berries yet?
  3. Water the tree weekly
  4. Apply mulch to help it trap that water!
  5. Prune it only at the RIGHT time of year (see above)
  6. Apply some slow-release fertilizer (see above)
  7. Check the soil pH – ideally it should be slightly acidic
  8. Inspect the leaves and bark for abnormalities – particularly looking for cankers along the branches
  9. Know that if the tree doesn’t get at least some direct sunlight, it may never produce
  10. Plant another elderberry tree to cross-pollinate, and supercharge production!

Reference

  1. International Dendrology Society

Image attribution

Theodor D. Leininger, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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