When you think of elderberry most, likely you conjure up thoughts of homemade wine, or perhaps the image of a large, billowing white flowered shrub growing in the road ditch. Few of us think of elderberry as a beautiful landscape ornamental. Could it be that we're so use to seeing this plant, we fail to see its beauty? Like a bright yellow field of goldenrod, we appreciate its beauty but we would never think of growing this common weed in our garden.
Last July when driving south on I-65 to Nashville, the roadside was littered with thousands of elderberry plants in full bloom. I was amazed by the big bold flowers and the diversity of plant and flower shapes. Some blooms were small while some were big. Others were round like jumbo snowballs and still others were flat and resembled the flowers of Queen Ann's lace. It was a spectacular sight and a great example of natural diversity! I wondered, "Does anyone else driving this highway see what I see?" Like many of our best native landscape plants, it seems the plant has to travel to Europe before we can appreciate its beauty and usefulness as a landscape plant. When traveling in the Netherlands my eye was instantly attracted to an American elderberry planted in front of a small apartment building. Every bit as nice as an Annabelle Hydrangea - I had to admit this is a fine landscape plant.
Is the American gardener ready to accept elderberry as a landscape plant? If the popular press is any indication, I think so. In the last couple of years I have seen elderberry featured in Fine Gardening, Horticulture magazine and several other consumer publications. When I give slide shows to master gardeners, continuing education students, and even horticulture students, elderberry never fails to invoke oohs & ahs from the audience. Consumers will certainly appreciate elderberry's toughness, ease if growth and adaptability to both wet and moderate soils. The huge interest in attracting song birds makes elderberry an even more attractive plant to American consumers. Why aren't we growing and selling this plant?
The elderberry market has been changing over the past few years. We are starting to see a wonderful array of cultivars available in the North American trade, particularly through the specialty mail order nurseries. It's the new cultivars that are drawing new attention to this plant. I have seen a steady increase in sales at the wholesale level, especially with some of the cultivars with colorful foliage. Some of these cultivars are quite attractive and create a completely new look for Elderberry.
Sambucus nigra - European Elderberry
Europeans have long used and appreciated elderberry as a landscape plant. Many of the best cultivars available today are selections of the earlier blooming Sambucus nigra, the European elderberry. Sambucus nigra is a larger shrub then our native elderberry Sambucus canadensis reaching heights up to 20 feet, while our native grows up to 10 to 12 feet tall. Both species benefit when cut back hard in early spring, resulting habit that is neater and a more manageable size. Sambucus nigra is distinct from our S. canadensis in other ways as well. It blooms in late May or early June, at least six to eight weeks earlier and it is a non-suckering plant. Both species thrive in moist or wet soils and yet they are also well adapted to better drained garden soils.
One of my favorite selections of European Elderberry is Sambucus nigra 'Pulverulenta'. This white and green variegated selection that looks as if someone has splashed it with white paint. The new growth is particularly white and from a distance it appears as if it's in bloom even when it's not. The white variegation is that pronounced. There is also a purple leafed form sold under the name Sambucus nigra 'Guincho Purple'. It is an attractive plant in the spring when the leaves are a dark purple, but unfortunately it turns green as grass in summer. It is no longer a plant that I would recommend growing.
The good news is that the English have developed a new cultivar call BLACK BEAUTY. This plant has outstanding glossy black leaves and is the first elder with pink flowers. Black Beauty is perhaps a plant best reserved for cooler climates. It has found a very strong following in the Pacific Northwest. In Southern climates leaf spotting can be a problem if the plants are not given adequate moisture. Also, this is a plant that takes a few years to reach its peak in the garden. As a young plant it tends to grow rather horizontally. Plenty of pinching when the plant is young will help to build a more bushy, upright plant.
BLACK LACE is in my opinion the best ornamental elder thus far. It is an exciting new plant that comes by way of the breeding program at East Malling Research Station in England. This beauty has velvet-black leaves that are finely cut and lacy. At first glance you might mistake this plant for an exotic form of Japanese maple, but it's not and the big pink flowers prove it. It will be available at retail nationally in 2007. It holds its color well, even in the heat of the South. Black Lace a remarkable plant in every respect, and it will be the plant that changes everyone's opinion of elderberry as an ornamental. It's unique color, texture and flower color combine to create an outstanding garden plant. Black Lace stands above all selections of ornamental elderberry and will find a home is most every garden.
There are numerous other selections of Sambucus nigra with interesting foliage. 'Madonna' is a brightly colored yellow variegated plant that has been fairly popular in the U.S. The cultivar 'Marginata'has leaflets with a thin margin of yellowish-white that fade to a creamy white while 'Aureomarginata' has a thin yellow margin that holds its color. For a completely different look, Sambucus nigra 'Laciniata'is a cut leaf selection that looks very much like an Acer palmatum dissectum 'Viridus'. There are numerous other cultivars of Sambucus nigra. See Sambucus Checklist below.
Sambucus canadensis - American Elderberry
American Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis has some distinct differences compared to its European cousin. American Elderberry is not only a smaller plant is also a hardier plant allowing it to be utilized the southern edge of USDA zone 3. The blooms appear in July, nearly a full month later than Sambucus nigra. The flower heads tend to be more ball-shaped or convex in shape compared to Sambucus nigra, which has flatter flower heads. It has also my observation that American elderberry tends to sucker more.
As is common when we have two similar species, one native and one European, the European species will usually have more cultivars. This rule of thumb holds true for Sambucus. There are noticeably fewer cultivars of Sambucus canadensis. Some of its cultivars are copycats of European cultivars. A yellow leaf forms called 'Aurea' appears in both species and the same is true with the cut leaf form 'Laciniata'. There is only one cultivar of Sambucus canadensis that was selected for its flowers. The cultivar 'Maxima' is noted for its enormous flower heads which can span up to 18 inches across. It flowers are the typical white, but the flower stalks, or pedicels, are an attractive rosey-purple. These pedicels can be quite effective after the blooms have fallen. There are easily a half dozen other cultivars in existence, but the majority have been selected for their fruit production. Apparently there are still some people who make elderberry wine and jam. Other cultivars are listed out in the attached checklist.
Sambucus racemosa - Red-berried Elder
Red-berried elder, Sambucus racemosa, a native to Eastern Europe and Western Asia is a medium sized shrub, 8 to 12 feet in height. This is a very hardy plant (zone 3). The yellowish-white flower heads are conical in shape and appear in April or May. Instead of the dark purplish-back berries like the American and European elderberry, this plant has dense clusters of bright scarlet red fruit. I saw a wild plant growing in Denmark and was amazed by it attractive fruit display. Although the fruit is very attractive in its own right, it is the cultivars of this species, with their attractive foliage that draws the most attention to this plant.
I have seen four different cultivars worthy of consideration. Sambucus racemosa 'Plumosa Aurea' is a colorful shrub with beautiful, deeply cut, golden foliage. The foliage color is a rich yellow and the habit is graceful. Unfortunately, it was reported that the foliage tends to burn in full sun. An improvement on this plant is the selection 'Sutherland Gold'. This is a Canadian selection of 'Plumosa Aurea' that is resistant to leaf burn (see photo above). Another Canadian selection called 'Golden Locks' is a slow growing dwarf form with golden leaves. Regardless of the cultivar, these yellow leafed plants will look their best in partial shade. One of the most interesting selections of Sambucus is 'Tenuifolia'. This odd mounding creature, is a weak growing plant with finely divided, fern-like foliage. At first glance, it looks like an exotic Japanese maple selection. A word or caution, S. nigra 'Liniaris' is being mistakenly sold in the US as S. r. 'Tenufolia'.
All of these selections are beautiful plants with excellent commercial value.
There are roughly twenty different species of Sambucus, comprised of trees, shrubs and perennials. I've presented just a few of the more interesting plants with horticultural value. Recently, I attended a presentation by the owner of one of the most successful garden centers in the Mid-West. With great excitement he spoke of retail trends and consumer preferences. After the talk, I asked what's exciting in woody plants. Surprisingly he said, "elderberry." He had noticed a trend for newer, colorful selections and his customers were asking for these varieties too. Again, I find myself asking: Why aren?t we growing these plants?