Big, bold and beautiful elders (Sambucus spp.) bring to mind country laneways: with shrubs billowing with lacy, white flowers in mid-summer, then later in early fall, hanging heavily with sprays of deep purple berries. "When the elder blows, summer is established," wrote Gilbert White (1720-1793), the Hampshire naturalist regarded as England's first ecologist. One hundred years later, Gertrude Jekyll agreed that "Midsummer Day…is clearly labelled by the full and perfect flowering of the Elder."
Part of the everyday genius of gardening is adapting an earlier century's plants to a modern landscape. Graceful and old-fashioned, elders are ideal for vacant corners, fencelines and shrub borders where form and substance are wanted, with little need for maintenance. Ms. Jekyll's plants were the European elder (Zone 6), which is less vigorous in the summer heat of North America. More familiar to Canadian gardens is the classic American elder (Zone 4), which is cold-hardy and thrives in moist soils in the backyard of many century homes; it has palm-like leaves and flat clusters of creamy white flowers up to 45 centimetres wide. When grown in full sun, it strides upward to three metres, with a spread of 2.5 metres; grown in partial shade, the American elder will finish at about two metres tall. With ample moisture and attention from bees, its flowers turn into magnificent purple-black berries, and are as elegant in a vase as they are delicious in preserves and wine.
Where to grow elders
Although lack of space is often the gardener's lament, a more confounding problem is how to fill space when it arrives. The removal of a storm-damaged redbud in a distant corner of my own garden has opened up a sunny, 1.8-metre-square area, just perfect for a collection of black and gold elders—Black Beauty European elder and ‘Sutherland Gold' European red elder—paired with a shrubby ‘Flame' amur maple (Acer ginnala) and long-blooming ‘Happy Returns' dwarf daylilies. Once established, elders are elegant and resourceful plants, filling space comfortably without demanding too much attention, and I'm sure they'll make this corner entirely their own. Elders also solve problems of a darker kind, adapting to shady corners between houses (where they grow well, though not as tall) and in the dappled light under birch and locust trees. Elders also serve an entirely pragmatic purpose as screening for an air conditioning unit or pool heater. Large in scale, from 1.5 to four metres tall, their variability in size is influenced by habitat and region. Their vigour allows for hard cutting back or removal of a third of their branches each year to enhance flower and fruit production.
Elders are distinguished by their generous ornamental qualities and ability to adapt to various growing conditions. They prefer consistently moist soil, but will accept drier conditions if irrigation is available. European plant breeders have worked hard to produce elder cultivars with outstanding features. The hybrid ‘Madonna' European elder has light yellow-green leaves with irregular, creamy-coloured margins and is a beautiful sight surrounded with hellebores and lungwort (Pulmonaria) in a quiet, dappled-shade corner. We relish visual tricks in the garden, and that's just what we get from the finely divided, light green foliage of ‘Laciniata' European elder, a dead ringer for significantly more costly Japanese maples such as Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Viridis' and ‘Filigree'.
Top photo: 'Black Beauty European elder'