Elderberry is a remarkable shrub or small tree of several species and many forms and colors of foliage, flowers and berries. It has been found in Stone Age and Bronze Age excavations, was one of the sacred trees of the Druids, and has been used as a medicinal herb by early Europeans, native Americans and modern herbalists. However it has not been popular in landscapes until recently when selections have been made for special leaf colors and textures. And now home-food and food-medicine gardeners want elderberries because scientific research has verified herbal lore that elderberries have major health benefits. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pictured elderberry with seven other berries as “nutritional royalty.”
Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) is a fast-growing shrub with compound leaves, large clusters of ususally white flowers and bunches of small berries. Most grow large, to 10’-12’, and some larger. The wood has a soft, pithy center which means branches are more breakable and trunks may not be long-lived. These qualities have led some authors to the conclusion that elderberry is a big, coarse, sloppy shrub for the wild garden. However, with some proper pruning and selecting the right cultivar for the site, elderberry can offer some outstanding values to gardeners in Colorado.
A Fast Screen: Like roses and raspberries, the pithy center of elderberry’s stem allows it to grow fast. Many people plant poplars and cottonwoods for a fast screen, only to discover they grow far too big and are expensive to maintain. American Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, grows quickly to 10’-12’ and is not difficult to maintain at that height. I have seen ‘Sutherland Golden’ Elder grow to 12’ where it functions beautifully to screen a neighbor’s high deck, providing complete privacy. If the object is to hide a garage or a parking lot, Sambucus nigra, the European Elder can grow 15’-20’ with dense branching clear to the ground.
Colorful Foliage and Fine Texture: Many yellow forms of elderberry are very effective and beautiful. This is unusual since yellow foliage can look sick or will sunburn in Colorado, or result in a weak plant because of too little chlorophyll. The yellow form of American Elder, S. canadensis ‘Aurea’ is a strong and beautiful, large shrub to 10’. I have seen many examples of this form growing over a 6’ fence and looking attractive from both sides. ‘Sutherland Golden’ Elder is a cutleaf form with beautiful lacy, yellow foliage. The yellow does turn more green in the summer, which is a smart move.
Sambucus nigra, the Black Elder, has very dark green foliage that shows off its white flowers beautifully. There is a cutleaf form, ‘Laciniata’ that has a fine, lacy texture that is very attractive. And there is a new form ‘Black Lace’ with finely cut dark purple foliage that grows 8’-10’ and has pink buds that open to creamy pink flowers. This form is so elegant that it has been used as a cold-tolerant substitute for Japanese Maple. Another form, ‘Madonna’, has strong gold margins on the leaves and only grows 3’-5’ high and wide, and is best grown in some shade.
When growing elder for colorful foliage, it is sometimes recommended to cut the shrub to the ground in early Spring to produce a smaller bush with intensely colored foliage.
Flowers: The flowers of elderberry are very small, but are held in large, dense clusters, sometimes 6”-8” in diameter, flat-topped with S. canadensis and mounding with Sambucus pubens. These flowers are a creamy white, creamy pink and sometimes pink, with a mildly musky fragrance, blooming in May to June. The pink flowers of ‘Thundercloud’ Elderberry arise from red buds and show up beautifully against its chocolate-purple foliage. ‘Black Beauty’ has pink flowers showing up against purple black foliage. These flowers are an important nectar source for bees and butterflies.
Elder flowers are best known for their flavorful and medicinal uses in tea, a floral champagne, fritters, cordials, vinegars, floral waters, ointments, and even as a spring tonic.
Fruit: The berries of the blue to black-fruiting species have a long history of culinary, nutritional and medicinal uses. The berries are only an eighth to a quarter of an inch in diameter, but form large bunches, like grapes, often weighing down the branches. Some people believe that the berries should be cooked before eating (and that is probably wise) to neutralize a slightly toxic effect. Others say fully ripe berries are not at all toxic.
Nutritionally, elderberries are high in potassium, have three times the protein of blueberries, and are rich in vitamin C, calcium, beta-carotene and phosphorus. The berries of Black Elder, Sambucus nigra, are used in many elderberry syrups, used for building the immune system and especially for fighting viruses in flu and laryngitis. American Indian tribes used American Elder in much the same way. Local herbalist and educator, Brigitte Mars, in her book Elder wrote, “It would be difficult to think of any other herb that can serve so many functions and help the body find the balance of health in so many ways.” (She lists 32 different medicinal functions of Elder.)
The fruit is also used in pies, cobblers, and wine. The best culinary elderberries are selections of Sambucus canadensis. ‘Adams’ was selected for large berries on a vigorous, productive shrub. ‘Johns’ is even bigger, producing more fruits and earlier, being especially good for jelly and wine. It is a good pollinator for ‘Adams’. ‘Nova’ is only 6’ high and wide that will set fruit even planted alone. It’s fruit is said to be sweeter. ‘York’ ripens later than ‘Nova’ and is said to be self-fertile, producing the largest berries.
It is difficult to find the final word about what Elders need for pollination. The USDA declares: “While some claim that two or more cultivars are needed for optimal fruit production, a planting of a single cultivar will produce good results.” But my single specimen of Sambucus nigra has been barren for 15 years except when flowers of another plant were shaken over my flowers. The surest answer is: grow two plants of the same species but of different varieties.
We should warn you that it is better to avoid eating the red berries of our native species, Sambucus pubens (aka S. microbotrys and S. racemosa), because of their known toxicity. Whether black or red, elderberries are loved by 120 species of birds that can be attracted with Elder to live in our yards because it is liked for nesting as well as food.
Insecticidal Leaves: The leaves of Elder are toxic and therefore can be used to deter mice and voles. And four handfuls of leaves simmered in a quart of water and strained, can be sprayed to rid plants of aphids and caterpillars. American Indians put elder leaves behind the ears to repel mosquitos.
And More: Elders like water and can live in a wet spot where other shrubs would die, but they can grow on the dry side too. They like composted soil, but are not fussy about pH or fertilizer, as long as they are not bone dry. They are known to be good for compost piles, both providing shade from drying out and also because the root excretions support the composting process. The pithy stems of Elder were burned out by the American Indians to make the stems of their sacred pipes, and native solitary bees like those soft centered stems for nesting sites.
Elderberry can provide the Colorado gardener with so much. To enhance their beauty, prune out the dead, broken and crossing branches. Shape them and give them some water and compost. They in turn will provide screening, attractive foliage and flowers, berries for food and medicine and bring Nature into our environment. It is no wonder that this amazing plant has been revered for thousands of years.