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European elderberry

Specimen plant of European elderberry, cultivar 'Eva'.

European elderberry is a large, multi-stemmed, rounded shrub. Plants are colony-forming and best used for naturalizing in moist to wet landscapes. The flat-topped, white,fragrant flowers appear in early summer are followed by clusters of purple fruit in mid-to-late summer. Many of the newer cultivars have purple foliage.

This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.


Botanical name:

Sambucus nigra

All common names:

European elderberry, Common elderberry

Family (English):


Family (Botanic):

Adoxaceae; formerly Caprifoliaceae

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Shrub

Native Locale:

  • Non-native

Landscape Uses:

  • Massing,
  • Mixed border,
  • Shade tree

Size Range:

  • Large shrub (more than 8 feet)

Light Exposure:

  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily),
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily),
  • Full shade (4 hrs or less of light daily)

Hardiness Zones:

  • Zone 4,
  • Zone 5 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6,
  • Zone 7,
  • Zone 8,
  • Zone 9

Soil Preference:

  • Acid soil,
  • Alkaline soil,
  • Moist, well-drained soil,
  • Wet soil


  • Occasional drought,
  • Wet sites,
  • Occasional flooding,
  • Alkaline soil,
  • Clay soil,
  • Road salt

Seasons of Interest:

  • late spring,
  • early summer,
  • midsummer,
  • late summer

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Fragrant,
  • Pink,
  • White

Shape or Form:

  • Arching,
  • Broad,
  • Irregular,
  • Mounded,
  • Round,
  • Thicket-forming

Growth Rate:

  • Fast

More Information:

Tree & Plant Care

A large, 10 to 12 feet high, multi-stemmed shrub forming large colonies. Cultivars listed are smaller.
Annual pruning will keep plant in shape when used in shrub borders and naturalized areas.
Can be cut to ground to rejuvenate.
Plant multiple shrubs for best fruiting potential.

Disease, pests, and problems

Leaf spots, borers, cankers, and verticillium wilt

Native geographic location and habitat

Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa

Attracts birds & butterflies

Large cluster of juicy purple berries attract songbirds and other wildlife 

Bark color and texture 

Stout, tan colored stems have raised lenicels and the inner pith is white and fills the stem.
Older bark develops ridges along the bark.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Opposite, finely toothed, compound leaves may have 5 to 11 leaflets. Medium green with lighter underside.
Fall color is yellow.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Numerous, tiny white flowers in a flat-topped, rounded terminal cluster.
Flower heads can be 6 to10 inches wide and fragrant.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Showy dark purple fruit clusters are at end of stems, often 6 to 10 inches wide.
Fruit is used for making wine and jelly.

Cultivars and related species and their differences

Black Beauty™ elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Gerda'): Dark purple leaves, pink flowers, black clusters of fruit;  grows 6 to 8 feet high and wide.

Black Lace™ elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Eva'): Lacy, fern-textured, dark purple foliage;  large 6-inch diameter clusters of pale pink flowers; grows 6 to 8 feet high; plants require full sun for purple color.

Cutleaf elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Laciniata'): Finely dissected green leaves; clusters of white flowers; grows 6 to 8 feet high and wide.

Instant Karma™ elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Sanivalk'): A variegated elderberry with blue green leaves and creamy white margins; white flowers; grows 6 to 8 feet high and wide.

Lemony Lace™ European red elder (Sambucus racemosa 'SMNSRD4'):  A bright golden, cut-leaf elderberry with good sunburn resistance; 3 to 5 feet high and wide, new growth starts out reddish changing to lemony yellow with white flowers and red fruit.

Location of Sambucus nigra (European elderberry) at the Arboretum