Gardening: Respect your Elder and its wide range of uses

Sambucus nigra or Elderberry has culinary uses.
Sambucus nigra or Elderberry has culinary uses.
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Sambucus nigra or Elderberry as it is more commonly known is widespread throughout Europe and western Asia, and yet the straight form which many more ornamental cultivars derive is not often seen purposely planted in peoples gardens.

A flowering Elder is a true sign that we have made it to midsummer, and perhaps the last big burst of white, blowsy bloom to be seen in the countryside hedgerows before the bountiful crops of fruit in the autumn.

Well adapted to growing in a wide range of situations it can often be thought of as scruffy, but given space to develop well it can grow into a gracefully well balanced large shrub or even small tree. Most often seen as a multi-stem’d specimen, but very attractive if trained to have a single trunk, where with age it will develop a very distinct twisted bark not dissimilar to that of the cork oak.

For centuries the Elder has been used in medicinal and culinary ways, regaining popularity to such an extent that orchards of elder have been replanted to keep up with consumer demands.

I have several recipes that make good use of the flowers, including elderflower cordial, elderflower champagne (non-alcoholic) and my favourite, elderflower syrup, best enjoyed when added to a sparkling wine, Prosecco for example, and enjoyed with friends on a warm summer evening in the garden. But the list goes on and on of things that can be made and enjoyed from both the flowers and also the small purplish black fruit produced on mass later in the year.

Two things that are worth noting are that in their raw form both the flowers and the fruit are slightly toxic, however all recipes require cooking of some kind and this destroys any chance of them being harmful. The other thing to note is that if making a recipe with the flowers of the dark leaved cultivars, which tend to be pink in colour, this will most often transcend into the end product making it a pale pink, particularly attractive with the elderflower champagne.

Cultivation of all Sambucus is very easy as they are so adaptable, as mentioned above, although they will of course be at their best in full sun where they will have a much better crop of flowers and fruit. There are several cultivars which are much more commonly chosen for the garden setting today due to their striking foliage colours and textures.

Sambucus racemosa ‘Plumosa Aurea’ is also known as the red berried elder, the finely cut foliage is bronze when it first emerges in the spring turning golden yellow as it matures, with creamy white flowers followed by glossy red berries. Bright sunlight is required for golden yellow foliage but if planted in a shadier spot will produce a more limey tone.

More popular at the moment with garden trends are the dark leaved cultivars,

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty: This is because the dark foliage compliments so many planting combinations.

Black Lace has finely cut feathery foliage and Black Beauty has a wider leaf like the green form, both having attractive flowers that open to an almost raspberry pink.

Both dark leaved cultivars are best planted in full sun as this produces the deepest most dramatic colours whereas if planted in a shady spot the resulting colour is less impressive and neither black nor dark green.

All forms of Sambucus respond very well to being hard pruned, and this method is often put into practice with the golden and black leaved forms to give a brighter bolder burst of growth to offset other plants, the side effect of this however is the reduction of flowers, as like many other mid-summer flowering shrubs they flower on the growth produced the previous year.

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