I’ve recently been interested in growing elderberry bushes and I’ve heard a lot of concerns about their leaves turning yellow. So, I did some research in advance and for readers out there possibly dealing with the same. Here’s what I found.
It’s normal for an elderberry bush’s leaves to yellow and drop in the fall and winter. However, if its leaves are yellowing in the spring and summer, it’s likely due to improper watering, nutrients, pests, or diseases such as fungal canker. Avoid improper watering by only watering when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry.
Let’s take a look at how to identify the causes of yellow leaves on elderberry bushes and how to treat them.
It’s normal for elderberry shrub to get yellow leaves in the fall and winter as they’re deciduous plants. Deciduous plants are plants that drop their leaves during the colder months as a survival response. This helps them go dormant and reserve nutrients for springtime.
During this time, elderberries and other deciduous plants get a few different shades of leaves including yellow, red, and brown.
However, if your elderberry shrub is getting yellow leaves in spring and summer, what could be causing it?
2. Improper Nutrients
Lack of Nutrients
|Nutrient Deficiency||Leaf Symptom|
|Nitrogen||Entire leaf is pale or yellow|
|Iron||Dark green veins, rest of the leaf is yellowing|
|Manganese||Broadly pale leaves, foliage color looks mottled or smeared|
Source: The University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources
A lack of nutrients commonly causes elderberry leaves to yellow and drop. I put together the above table to help diagnose which nutrient your elderberry bush might be lacking.
While a lack of nutrients is often from poor soils, it can also be from over-watering. This is because water naturally leaches nutrients, diluting them and pushing them deeper into the soil. As the majority of elderberry roots only grow within the first 2 feet of soil, leaching quickly moves nutrients away from the roots.
Too many nutrients also cause elderberry bushes to get yellow leaves as it chemically burns the plant’s roots. This stress leads to leaves yellowing, browning, and dropping.
In this case, leaching by over-watering is likely a good idea, as you can dilute the excess nutrients and disperse them further into the soil.
So, if you believe your elderberry’s yellow leaves are from applying too much fertilizer, water the plant for a good 1-2 hours on a low setting.
Of course, if your plant’s soil has poor drainage, you’ll want to address this first (see the above section).
How to Fertilize Elderberry Bushes
The best way to fertilize elderberry bushes is with organic fertilizers or compost.
While chemical fertilizers are good in the short-term, they often have long-term effects such as killing beneficial soil life. Once the soil dies, it becomes dry and its benefits such as improved water retention, nutrients, and pest and disease resistance vanish.
To see which organic fertilizer I recommended, check out my recommended fertilizer page. I suggest following the instructions on the box for the best results.
However, compost is quickly becoming the go-to replacement for fertilizer. For our backyard fruit trees, I apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months and 4 inches of mulch every 3-6 months. I suggest doing the same for elderberry bushes.
Imbalanced Soil pH
Elderberry bushes prefer a soil pH of 5.5-6.5.
Most plants prefer a slightly acidic pH as it dissolves the nutrient solids in the soil and makes them accessible to the plant’s finer roots.
Fourteen of the seventeen essential plant nutrients are obtained from the soil. Before a nutrient can be used by plants it must be dissolved in the soil solution. Most minerals and nutrients are more soluble or available in acid soils than in neutral or slightly alkaline soils.Donald Bickelhaupt, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
If the pH is outside of this range, elderberry plants aren’t able to absorb nutrients properly, leading to issues such as yellow, brown, and dropping leaves.
The best ways to check your soil’s pH are with pH strips or a meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re easy to use and affordable. To see which pH meter I use and recommend, check out my recommended tools page.
If you find your elderberry’s soil pH is too acidic (below 5.5), apply alkaline amendments such as wood ash, biochar, or lime.
For soil that’s too alkaline (above 6.5), apply acidic amendments such as sand, peat moss, and coffee grounds.
Over-watering is the most common preventable reason elderberry bushes get yellow leaves. It’s easy to accidentally over-water, but there’s a rule of thumb that helps prevent it.
Only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry. This prevents both over-watering as well as under-watering.
I check this by pushing a finger into the soil. You can also use a moisture meter, but I found them to be unnecessary and sometimes inaccurate.
If you water only when the soil is dry, you’ll have no issues with over-watering. However, this is difficult when working with poorly draining soils, such as those high in clay.
If your elderberry bush’s soil is staying sopping wet for more than 1 day, it likely has poor drainage. In this case, the soil’s particles are packed too tightly to allow any water to flow deeper into the soil.
As a result, the elderberry plant’s roots drown and grow fungus, leading to issues such as yellow and dropping leaves.
While the finger test is a good way to check your soil’s moisture, there’s another way to test its drainage.
The best drainage test that I’ve found is a percolation test. I first learned about this method in my permaculture design course and it has served me well when diagnosing soil drainage.
Here’s how to do it:
- Dig a 1-foot by 1-foot hole
- Place a yardstick in it and fill the hole with water
- After 1 hour, mark the level that the water drained
Ideally, the soil should have a drainage of 2 inches per hour. However, soil rarely drains exactly at this rate, so don’t worry if yours is way off. This just serves as a good way to identify if you have quick or slow soil drainage.
For example, we have areas in our backyard that drain up to 5 inches an hour.
How to Amend Drainage
The best way to amend soil is with compost. Adding organic matter not only improves the water retention of the soil, but it breaks up the larger clumps of soil (such as clay). As a result, compost is used to amend both poor and fast soil drainage.
Every 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter leads to an additional 20,000 gallons of water held per acre (source).
Apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months on top of your elderberry’s soil (under the drip line of the plant). Avoid touching the compost to the stems as it can introduce mold.
When your elderberry’s soil has proper drainage, apply 4 inches of mulch to further improve the soil’s water retention and nutrients.
4. Transplant Shock
If your elderberry bush was recently planted or repotted, and its leaves are wilting or drooping, it’s likely due to transplant shock. Transplant shock occurs when a plant is exposed to a new environment and has to establish a new root system.
Avoid transplanting elderberry bushes unless necessary as it can take up to 1 year for recovery.
To help avoid transplant shock, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the plant’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the plant’s stem and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the plant in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the plant as before
- Apply 2 inches of compost and 4-12 inches of mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
These tiny sap-sucking insects can cause serious damage to your elderberry bush by sapping the plant’s nutrients and spreading viruses.
Signs of Aphids:
- Yellow, curling, or misshapen leaves
- Stunted growth
- Black sooty mold on leaves (a result of the aphids’ sticky honeydew excretion)
Prevention and Treatment:
- Introduce beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, which are natural predators of aphids.
- Spray plants with a homemade solution of water and a few drops of dish soap to help dislodge and kill the aphids. Be sure to rinse the plants with clean water after a few hours to prevent soap buildup. You can also use neem oil.
- Use a strong jet of water to knock aphids off the plant (this is what worked when I removed aphids from my Kaffir lime tree). Repeat as needed
Signs of Borers:
- Wilting or yellow leaves
- Small piles of sawdust on the ground at base of older canes
Prevention and Treatment:
- Prune out infected canes and shoots
- Spray plants with a homemade solution of water and a few drops of dish soap to help dislodge and kill the borers. Be sure to rinse the plants with clean water after a few hours to prevent soap buildup. You can also use neem oil.
This fungal disease, caused by Podosphaera aphanis, is characterized by a powdery white coating on the leaves, stems, and sometimes fruits of the elderberry plant.
Signs of Powdery Mildew:
- White, powdery coating on leaves, stems, and/or fruits
- Curling, distorted, or stunted leaves
- Poor fruit quality and reduced yields
Prevention and Treatment:
- Provide adequate sunlight and air circulation by proper plant spacing and pruning.
- Water plants in the morning, so the foliage dries quickly, and avoid overhead watering.
- Remove and discard infected plant material to reduce the spread of the disease.
- Apply a sulfur-based fungicide or a homemade solution of 1 tablespoon baking soda, 1 tablespoon horticultural oil, and 1 gallon of water. Spray the plants, making sure to cover all surfaces.
Signs of Canker:
- Irregular swollen or sunken areas on branches or trunks
- Round, tumor looking bumps
Prevention and Treatment:
- Prune out infected branches
- If the disease reaches the trunk of the elderberry bush remove the entire bush
A Note on Pesticides, Fungicides, and Herbicides
We recently had an issue with caterpillars eating our basil plants and we were about fed up. Every time we’d plant basil, the caterpillars ate it.
Fortunately, we found an organic spray at our local nursery that’s made from fermented rum. The day after spraying, we’d find dead caterpillars on the soil.
If you’d like to find out more about this organic spray, you can find it here on Amazon.
So, what’s my point here?
Even though chemical sprays and fertilizers are an easy way out, like all easy and convenient things, there are usually long-term costs. Namely to the plants, soil, and surrounding beneficial life.
Before using conventional sprays, weigh the pros and cons and consider trying organic or permaculture-based treatments first.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. See your local services.
- 7 Easy Steps to Grow Fruit Trees (Free Guide): Need more fruit tree help from the ground up? See our free guide to make growing fruit trees a breeze.
- Ask the Free Community: Join The Couch to Homestead Community and connect with other members discussing gardening, homesteading, and permaculture.
- 30-Day Permaculture Food Forest Course: Learn how to turn your backyard into a thriving food forest in just 30 days with our online course.