Elderberries can play a number of roles in the modern garden. Being berry-producing trees, they are a must for the wildlife garden. They are also very useful as foliage plants and are available in a wide assortment of colors and textures. Elderberries are also grown for their attractive edible flowers. Elderberries grow in temperate areas and even in desert regions of North America as well as in parts of Europe.
Elderberries (Sambucus) are small multi-stemmed vase-shaped trees in the honeysuckle (Caprifoliaceae) family. They grow naturally at the edges of woods as understory trees. The deciduous leaves are long with multiple leaflets that create an exotic effect in the landscape. The blooms are flat-topped clusters bearing many small florets. Some species are fragrant and may have white or pink flowers. Most elders have small edible blue-black berries. The wood can be fairly brittle with shredding bark and hollow twigs. The name (Sambuca) means "stringed instrument" in the Greek language. It is said that the hollow stems can be fashioned into musical instruments.
Most of the named varieties of elderberry are from the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) which is fast-growing and has sweet berries. Elderberries are usually found in moist areas, but there is a desert elderberry. The Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) grows in arid desert regions but is usually found close to a water source. The Mexican elderberry looks a lot like the blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) found on the West Coast. The Latin word cerulea means sky blue, which describes the berry color. Elderberries are grown in the garden mainly for their interesting foliage which can be quite colorful. The species elders have medium-green leaves but the hybrid forms can have yellow, variegated or purple foliage. The cut-leaf varieties have wonderful delicate ferny foliage and come in green and black varieties. Most elderberries are small trees averaging 12 feet in height, but there are smaller ones around 6 feet in height and some as tall as 20 feet.
Elderberries are carefree once established but require regular water to look their best. They are not fussy about soil type but thrive in areas with a good amount of organic matter. They are adaptable to different light conditions but will need more water in full sun; they are found naturally in partial shade. Those with variegated, yellow or cut-leaved foliage need protection from the hot afternoon sun or the leaves will burn. These trees can be easily shaped and can even handle severe pruning. If elderberries should die back or are cut to the ground they will return rapidly. If the soil is rich in organic matter there is no need to fertilize. If they are given fertilizer they will grow very fast, but too much will reduce the amount of fruit production.
Designing With Elderberries
Elderberries fill an important niche in the garden. They do well planted below taller conifers and shade trees. This makes them perfect for the next layer just above the shrubs. A well-planned garden will have many foliage layers at varying heights. A one-gallon elderberry plant can grow to maturity in only a few years, so they are a wonderful addition to a new garden. Those with bright-colored foliage will have a huge impact, and those with cut leaves will add needed texture to the landscape. The most popular varieties are the purple- to black-leaved types. "Black Beauty" has a typical elderberry leaf, only black, and "Black Lace" has black cut foliage and is a smaller size.
The berries of most elderberry species are used to make wine and syrup and are added to baked goods like muffins, pancakes and scones. Some people may get an upset stomach from eating too many berries, but they are not toxic. The flowers are also edible and are used as a garnish or battered and fried as elderberry fritters. The red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is not recommended for eating. Sources vary about toxicity so the safest bet is not to eat the red berries at all.