Gardening: Fragrant bounty of the blossoming elderflower

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If you have managed to get out to the countryside and enjoy the glorious weather in recent weeks then you can’t have failed to notice the roadside and hedgerows frothing with creamy-white blossom.

Verges can hardly contain themselves, as they billow onto the roads and lanes that wind into the Dales, pushing their heady scents into the faces of passing travellers.

Flowers from the common elder Sambucus nigra are particularly generous at sharing their fragrant bounty whether you like it or not! The scent is quite pungent. It has a flowering period that can last over six weeks, with many flower heads (panicles) flowering at different times on the same tree. Individual trees may flower earlier or later depending on their position, being in full sun or part shade.

Described as having a musk-scent, its flavour is quite delicate. In recent years a whole industry has built up within the ‘foody revolution’ making elderflowers one of the more popular and profitable ‘wild foods’, from cordials and sorbets to jams and jellies. Towards mid-July the blossom fall and the berries begin to form. Elderberries, like the flowers, have been used for centuries but haven’t received the same resurgence in popularity as the latter. The famous garden writer Christopher Lloyd once penned: “I have never tasted any product of elderberries that I should like to repeat”.

Steeped in folklore and used for centuries in herbal medicine, a favourite herb of Hypocrites, it is said to be the sacred plant of gypsies who would not use it in their fires believing it to be too valuable a tree to mankind, and too precious to burn. One of its many past uses was to deter flies from horses by tying bunches of the leaves to their harness.

Birds love the rich dark berries and have unwittingly gained the elder an unfavourable reputation, some calling it a weed by the way it appears everywhere from waste sites, to hedgerows; we had one growing in a dry stonewall! Its distribution is Europe wide, stretching down to N Africa and across to SW Asia. From the Caprifoliaceae family, Sambucus has a genus of about 25 species, all fully hardy. Sometimes too large to be called a shrub and other times to small (and irregular) to be called a tree, Sambucus provides the flexibility of being both with a variety of cultivars that offer dramatic colours and textured forms.

One of my favourites is a cultivar of our native called Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple’, it has dark leaves turning to black-purple before turning red in the autumn. The flowers form flat panicles and are tinged pink with purple stalks, and give a beautiful rose colour when making cordial. S.nigra f. ‘laciniata’ AGM is also recommended for the kitchen for its larger flower heads. The presence of S. nigra ‘Eva’ (formerly ‘Black Lace’) is invaluable as its finely cut purple leaves create a soft dark backdrop within any mixed border. In contrast S.nigra ‘Aurea’ AGM has golden yellow leaves and S.nigra ‘Aureomarginata’ has dark green leaves margined with yellow.

Elders grow in a variety of locations but when in cultivation a moist but well drained soil is preferred, dappled shade helps preserve leaf colour but I have seldom seen one severely affected by being in full sun. Elders can take hard pruning, to rejuvenate, renovate or to contain them within a small space, but with the loss of next year’s crop of flowers and berries. For coloured leaved, varieties follow instructions for pruning group 7, all others follow pruning group 1.

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