Common Elder - Sambucus nigra - a growing guide

Photo of Sambucus nigra

Sambucus nigra (Common Elder)

Sambucus nigra is also known as the common elder and whilst this shrub whose fruit is the elderberry is common in our hedgerows it is also very useful in the garden. The common variety makes an excellent hedge or can be added to a cottage garden to add height. In late spring early summer it has large flat-topped clusters of tiny white flowers and these are followed by the black berries used for making elderberry jam, cordial or wine. They are also very popular with birds.

Whilst the common elder is very useful in the garden even better are the black leaved varieties: Sambucus nigra 'Black Beauty'; and Sambucus nigra  'Black Lace'. Both of these have beautiful black leaves and beautiful pink flowers. 'Black lace' has beautiful finely cut very delicate looking leaves and the flowers of 'Black beauty' have a sweet lemon scent.

Sambucus nigra Black Lace

Despite their delicate appearance the black leaved varieties are hardy though a particularly severe winter might result in it dying back to the base like a perennial in which case simply cut down the branches and new growth will appear in the spring.

The common green leaved variety is fully hardy.

Sambucus nigra growing guide

Sambucus nigra is easy to grow and does well in virtually any soil including heavy clay or light soils. It does best with moisture but grows more drought-resistant as it ages.

They like full sun but will tolerate partial shade.

They are hardy but as mentioned above the 'black lace' and ' black beauty' varieties may need to be heavily pruned back after a particularly hard winter. This is not a problem and indeed both should be pruned back to ground level in early spring to get the best coloured leaves.

Flowering takes place late spring/early summer.

The elders grow to around a meter tall and wide.

Sambucus nigra propagation

Both the green and black elders grow very well from cuttings and you are sure to want to propagate - especially if you have the stunning black elder in your garden. Success rates with cuttings are particularly good from young plants but still possible with older specimens.

Take semi-ripe cuttings in the summer or early autumn. The cutting should have a woody base but soft top growth. Cut just below a leaf node and aim for a cutting of about 10cm long. Remove the lower leaves and leave only about 4 leaves on the cutting. If these are large leaves cut them in half so that the cutting doesn't lose too much water. Dip the cutting in rooting compost and push gently into a pot of cuttings compost of planting compost mixed 50:50 with sand or perlite. Cover the pots with a plastic bag and place in a sheltered, sunny position. Keep the compost moist.  Once they show signs of growth you can remove the plastic bag and keep the cuttings out of frost. They should be ready for planting out the following spring.

The green-leaved common elder will self-seed prolifically and you should be able to find young trees by searching the garden near to your parent plant.

Planting Combinations

Sambucus nigra is an excellent addition to a cottage garden.

The black elders look particularly good planted next to bright red and orange flowers such as those of crocosmia or heleniums.

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