Common elder, Sambucus nigra, is a pretty, native shrub or small tree with tiny white, fragrant flowers in early summer followed by small black fruits. The foliage is also attractive, with green and dark, almost black-leaved varieties available, some with very finely cut and highly ornamental leaves. Elder flowers can be used to infuse syrups, cordial and gin and elder berries can be used to make syrups and wine – they should not be eaten raw as they can cause nausea. Commonly found in country hedgerows, allotments and gardens, elder is a good choice for a mixed border or mixed native hedge, or a wildlife or woodland planting scheme – bees love the blossoms and birds love the fruits.
How to grow elder
Grow elder in moist but well-drained sun in full sun to full shade. Cut back hard in spring to maintain large leaves and a shrubby habit, or leave to develop into a tree. Mulch annually with well-rotted manure or leaf mould.
More on growing elder:
Where to grow elder
Elder is tolerant of most soils, but will get off to a good start in moist but well-drained soil. Choose a position in full sun to partial shade.
How to plant elder
Plant young elders in autumn, digging a generous hole and adding mycorrhizal fungi to encourage root growth. Plant bare-root whips and small trees from autumn to spring, providing the soil isn’t frozen.
How to care for elder
If you’re growing elder as a shrub, prune it back annually to maintain its shape. Prune hard – down to a few stumps in the ground – for the best results. New stems bear bigger, better coloured leaves than those left unpruned.
In this video guide, Monty Don explains how much to prune away and where to make the cuts:
How to propagate elder
Take semi-ripe cuttings in late summer and early autumn, or hardwood cuttings in winter.
Growing elder: problem solving
Elder is a tough, native tree, which rarely suffers from pests or diseases. Some species suffer from black fly on young shoots. These are usually removed by birds and other predators, but you could also use soap sprays to manually remove them.
Great elder varieties to grow
- Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ – good for a long season of interest, with finely cut, almost black foliage, and pink-flushed blooms in summer. In autumn, its leaves turn a rich red.
- Sambucus nigra ‘Marginata’ – a variegated elder with good year-round interest. Small scented, white flowers appear in spring, followed by black berries in late summer, and the foliage is striking with yellow-margined, dark green leaves.
- Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’ – a very ornamental cultivar with almost black foliage and sweet, lemon scented, pale pink flowers in early summer.
- Sambucus nigra ‘Golden Tower’ – this has a more narrow, upright habit, which makes it a good for smaller gardens. The finely cut foliage is a vibrant golden green colour with clusters of white flowers appearing in summer.
- Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Guincho Purple’ – grows up to 6m high, with stunning foliage that starts out green, turning purple and red through the seasons. Typical elder flowers appear in spring with black fruits following in late summer and autumn.
- Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’- a medium-sized elder, typical clusters of creamy flowers appear in spring, but this cultivar is prized for its bright, golden yellow, finely cut foliage.