I first discovered Sambucus when I lived in Kingston. I planted three different kinds, and was delighted with them. That more people do not use them perplexes me. They are an excellent substitute for the relatively non-hardy Japanese maple, with the added advantage of flowers and edible fruit. There is one native species that is of less interest than the others, but the whole group of these woody shrubs are beautiful to gaze upon. They are diverse in form and foliage ranging from green cut-leaf varieties to ones with mahogany foliage with light pink flower clusters. They can get very large and require pruning, but they are so rewarding to grow. I really can’t see having a garden without at least one Sambucus.
I have no photograph of the three shrubs in my garden at 59 Bay Street in Kingston. The one that appears here is from Gardeners’ World.
The botanical name for this plant is Sambucus nigra. It is a member of the Caprifoliaceae family which also contains the viburnum trees and shrubs (Viburnum spp.), beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.), and weigelas (Weigela spp.). Sometimes Sambucus nigra is placed in a newer family called Adoxaceae. Common names include common elderberry, black elderberry, common elder, black elder, Judas tree, bore tree, pipe tree, European elderberry, blue elderberry, elder bush, and European elder. It is native to northern Africa, Asia, and Europe except for Sambucus canadensis, native to Canada. At maturity, Sambucus nigra will grow up to 20 feet tall, depending on the variety. Garden Design says they can grow up to 12 feet tall and 6 feet across and claims that these plants can live an average of 25 to 50 years.
Elders can form into a round mound or a small tree. The leaves are compound and have three to nine leaflets that are in an opposite arrangement. The small white flowers form in a cluster called a cyme and are produced during the summer.
Common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), also called American black elderberry, is a woodland species native to eastern and central Canada to the southern US (zones 3–9). It grows to a height of 8 to 12 feet and has large flat-topped clusters of white flowers that emerge in profusion in midsummer, followed by purple-black fruit in late summer and early fall. Spreads by suckers, this vigorous grower is suitable for naturalizing or mass plantings.
Commonly found in country hedgerows, allotments and gardens, elder is a good choice for a mixed border or mixed native hedge, or a wildlife or woodland planting scheme. Other garden purposes include screening, rain gardens, erosion control, understorey tree, or as a specimen plant.
Bees are attracted to the blossoms and birds to the fruits. Butterflies, and hummingbirds also visit the shrub. Elders have medicinal and culinary uses for wine, cordials, syrups, and pie. Typically, they will produce fruit in their second or third year after planting. Harvest when the berries are as dark purple or even as black. They should be very soft and juicy and cut that day so the birds won’t get at them first. It’s impossible to pick individual berries, so choose clusters in which most of the fruits are ripe. Remove the entire bunch with pruning shears; cut them off just under the base of the berry cluster. The berries can be frozen for later use.
Hardy in zones 5 through 7 (or 9 for some varieties), elder prefers moist but well-drained sun in full sun to full shade.Tolerant of most soils, it does best in moist but well-drained soil. Proper drainage is key to preventing root rot; standing water should be avoided. Mulch annually with well-rotted manure or leaf mould.
As with any plant, carefully ensure that they are watered well. Elderberries can handle (and need) a good amount of water at first. As long as the moisture can drain away from the base of the plant, there is little risk of overwatering. To stimulate fruit production, fertilize annually in early spring by applying a granular fertilizer formulated for trees and shrubs. Your soil can provide much of what the plant needs if it’s amended with some manure or compost.
A tough tree, elder rarely suffers from pests or diseases (although The Spruce lists some pests and diseases that may target elders). Some species suffer from black fly on young shoots. These are usually removed by birds and other predators, but you could also use soap sprays to manually remove them. Elderberry plants have shallow roots, so they can easily get crowded out by aggressive weeds. Pull weeds by hand, but be careful not to disturb more than 2 inches of topsoil.
The common elderberry is very tolerant of pruning and can be cut all the way down to the ground in late winter to help keep the shrub healthy and neat. Prune hard – down to a few stumps in the ground – for the best results. Cutting back hard like this will maintain large leaves and a shrubby habit, or leave to develop into a tree. New stems bear bigger, better coloured leaves than those left unpruned. Prune away suckers to keep them in check, or they may spread throughout the garden. Suckers can be left if you want the shrub to naturalize. Semi-ripe cuttings in late summer and early autumn or hardwood cuttings in winter can be used for propagation. Gardeners’ Path has instructions for taking softwood cuttings.
Though many varieties are self-fruiting, you can encourage higher yields by planting another cultivar of the same species nearby (within 50 to 60 feet) to encourage cross pollination. Elder flowers can be used to infuse syrups, cordial and gin and elder berries can be used to make syrups and wine. While I have eaten a handful raw, I read recommendations against this since it can cause nausea. The Spruce and other sources claim that the unripe fruits (and stems and other parts) are poisonous and should be cooked.
Elderberry varieties with purple leaves include ‘Black Beauty’, ‘Black Lace’, ‘Purpurea’, and ‘Thundercloud’. I have Thundercloud as well as S canadensis that I got from LEAF. Variegated leaves can be found in ‘Albo-variegata’, ‘Madonna’ and ‘Pulverulenta’. I don’t know the names of the three I had in Kingston, but it was likely Black Beauty, and the green cutleaf one plus one other.