Why Is My Elder Tree Dying? (Solved!)

Elder trees or Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) as they are also known, are native to Europe and the UK.

They are deciduous and have a very open structure, with numerous thin stems.

The black berries can be used for jams and medicines after processing, in their raw state they are toxic.

The white flowers can be used to make a sparkling beverage.

They are fairly hardy, but can suffer from occasional issues.

So if you have asked the question “Why Is My Elder Tree Dying?” this article is for you!

Elder trees can be affected by incorrect levels of water and nutrients, and can also suffer damage and attack by pests, fungi and viruses.

Not Enough Water

Once established, Elder trees should be able to source sufficient water for themselves.

If the weather is unusually hot and dry however, and your Elder is in a very sunny spot, then additional hydration may be required.

This is also the case for young or recently moved plants.

Leaves will look wilted and drooping, and growth will be slow.

How to fix:

  • Monitor the Elder tree and water at the base in the morning if the tree looks wilted.
  • Consider mulching in autumn and spring to aid water retention in the soil.
  • Mulch around the stem without touching the bark to gain the benefits without encouraging fungal growth.
  • When planting Elders, choose a partially shaded spot.

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Too Much Water

Elders like moist but well draining soil, and will not like to sit in wet soil.

This can cause issues for the roots and inhibit water intake.

Check the surrounding soil and if it feels continually wet rather then moist then take action.

How to fix:

  • If your soil is heavy and prone to waterlogging, work in some grit, sand or stones to aid drainage.
  • Do not plant Elders in areas that water collects, such as natural dips in the garden or in ditches.

Not Enough Nutrients

Elderberry trees and shrubs are happy in most soil types, however in particularly poor or free draining soil the natural nutrients in the soil may leech away before the Elder can take them up.

This will show in yellowing leaves and stunted growth.

Berries will be smaller and appear later in the year.

How to fix:

  • If you have very sandy or thin rocky soil you can work in mulch and compost to improve the nutrient value of the soil.
  • Apply this in early spring and early autumn.
  • Make sure to avoid damaging the roots while digging in the organic material, and leave a space around the stem.

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Too Much Fertiliser

Although extra nutrients can be beneficial, over-application of fertiliser can damage the plant.

This can happen if powdered fertiliser is applied on a windy day as this can blow up into the foliage and burn the leaves.

Too much fertiliser can also result in lots of leaf growth but fewer berries.

Young Elder trees are best left for the first couple of years so as not to damage the growing fragile root system with chemicals.

How to fix:

  • If you are fertilising your Elder with a store bought pack, be sure to read the directions carefully.
  • Apply sparingly and on a day that is not windy, and wear gloves.


Elderberry trees have numerous slender stems that can be brittle.

They can become damaged easily if knocked or hit by high winds.

The root system is also shallow and delicate.

How to fix:

  • Be careful when mowing or strimming around the Elder tree.
  • If the root system becomes exposed, add a layer of topsoil to cover and protect them.
  • Elder trees grow leaves on new wood, so if you want foliage rather than flowers and berries, it is good practice to prune Elders down almost to the ground (about 30cm high) in early spring.
  • This will encourage strong new growth, and remove the older more fragile stems.
  • If you want the flowers and berries then leave the stems on but prune out any broken stems to prevent them knocking or rubbing against healthy wood.

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Pests – Aphids and Red Spider Mites

These pests can feed on Elder leaves and shoots by sucking out the sap.

Aphids produce a clear sweet sticky by-product called Honeydew.

This attracts a black sooty mould that sticks to the leaves.

Red Spider Mites are tiny and may not be immediately visible, however you may see fine webbing among the leaves.

In both cases the eaten leaves and new growth can become mottled and brown, eventually drying up and falling off.

How to fix:

  • Remove affected leaves and wipe with a very mild dish soap solution.
  • Prune badly affected branches and dispose (not in the compost heap).
  • Encourage natural predators like birds, other insects, frogs and ladybirds by having a high level of biodiversity in your garden.
  • Maintain general plant health by making sure Elder trees are properly watered, and clear debris from around the base of the tree to aid ventilation.

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Pests – Scale

Scale insects resemble small bumps like limpet shells stuck to the leaf or branch.

The young are paler and without the hard shell.

You may also see sticky leaves and/or sooty mould.

If left untreated they can increase in number and will begin to affect the health of the Whitebeam.

It is best to treat them when the insects are young, before they grow the hard shell that clamps them to the branch.

How to fix:

  • If you see an advanced infestation it is best to seek professional advice, and they can provide information on appropriate chemical control.
  • If you cannot find a professional then Neem oil is can be used, spraying before dawn and dusk, for 10 days.
  • If the Scale are few in number you can apply alcohol with a cotton bud and remove them one by one.
  • Or if they are found on one particular branch you can carefully remove that branch and dispose (not in the compost heap).

Fungus – Verticillium Wilt

This fungus travels through the soil and enters the tree through the roots.

It then attacks the tree’s circulatory (vascular) system.

Affected trees will show wilted yellowing leaves, sometimes just in one section.

Whole branches can die back quite suddenly.

Branches can have brown or black staining under the bark, and a cross section will show dark circles.

How to fix:

  • Once this fungus has become established, it can become extremely hard to treat.
  • If the fungus has only infected a very small section of a large and otherwise flourishing Elder, you can try just pruning out the affected branches back to healthy wood.
  • This may just delay the inevitable decline however, as it cannot be eradicated completely.
  • In smaller Elder trees that are more significantly affected, it is safest just to remove the tree completely and dispose of it safely (not in the compost heap).
  • Make sure to sterilise all tools used.
  • When replanting that location, choose trees such as Conifers, as they are resistant to Verticillium Wilt.
  • Prevention is better than a cure, so make sure the soil is well draining.

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Fungus – Canker

Cankers are areas of distorted, sunken or swollen dead wood tissue.

They are caused when a fungus enters the tree through holes or wounds in the bark.

How to fix:

  • You can carefully remove branches with cankers, provided they are not part of the main stem.
  • Cut at least 10cm below the canker.
  • Use sharp loppers or secateurs and sterilise them before and after use.
  • Burn or dispose of the affected branches (not in the compost heap).
  • Avoid causing accidental damage your Elder bark.
  • Look out for pets or children scratching the tree, and be mindful when using a strimmer in that area.
  • Carefully remove any branches that are rubbing together, as this can cause an open wound and allow infection in.
  • If the canker is on the main trunk, and it is large and low down, then removal of the whole tree may be best.

Leaf Fungi – Leaf Spot / Powdery Mildew

These infections can occur when conditions are moist and warm.

In the case of Leaf Spot, foliage becomes covered in little dark brown spots that grow in number.

They begin to merge, creating large areas of brown to black dead leaf tissue.

The fungus that causes Powdery Mildew presents as a white dusting over the top of leaves.

Each of the above can cause leaf drop earlier in the year than normal, and the spores spread further into the air and soil.

How to fix:

  • Neither Leaf Spot nor Powdery Mildew should cause too much distress to the Elder.
  • Affected leaves can be carefully removed them from the tree using gloves.
  • Sterilise all containers and tools.
  • Take care not to shake the foliage too much as this releases further spores.
  • One method is to have your hand inside a plastic bag, then pull the infected leaf inside the bag.
  • Neem oil can be used to treat Powdery Mildew, while copper based sprays can be used to remedy Leaf Spot, use each as directed on the packaging.
  • Make sure to remove accumulated leaf matter from around the tree and burn.
  • Adding mulch or an extra layer of soil around the bottom of the tree (not touching the bark) will help create a barrier for the spores.
  • When watering trees, be careful not to splash water up onto the leaves ie: with a sprinkler.
  • It is best to water from the base using a hose or watering can.

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Virus – Tomato Ringspot

This virus came over from the United States in the 1980s and can cause fairly serious problems for Elder trees.

It is spread by nematodes (small worms) in the soil and also by pollen from infected plants.

Symptoms of Tomato Ringspot include distorted and curling leaves, sometimes with yellow spots.

New buds die and turn black.

The tree becomes devitalised and growth slows, berry production decreases.

Eventually it can kill the tree.

How to fix:

  • This is a difficult virus to eradicate, especially for beginner gardeners so prevention is better than a cure.
  • Practice good garden hygiene by keeping weeds controlled and sanitising tools regularly.
  • Test the soil for nematodes before planting.
  • This usually involves taking a soil sample and sending it to a lab.
  • If you do see the signs above, remove the tree and any surrounding soil and plants.
  • Burn or dispose of carefully (not in the compost heap).
  • Allow the area to fallow (rest) for up to a year to starve the nematodes.

Final Thoughts

As we can see there are a few issues that can affect the Elder tree, some more serious than others.

Hopefully I have covered them all but if you find something you can’t identify, drop me a message and I will do my best to help.

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