These striking, hardy shrubs are ideal for adding a splash of colour to planting schemes, writes Sarah Morgan.

Sambucus nigra berries - photo: Garden Picture Library
Sambucus nigra berries - photo: Garden Picture Library

The breeders at East Malling Research possibly scored an own goal in 2000 when they launched two elders, Sambucus nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Beauty' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace'. These were so good that sales of similar cultivars slumped. Their dark plum, almost black foliage is the best of its type on offer and their leaf colour doesn't fade, unlike previously popular varieties such as S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Guincho Purple'.

S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Beauty' AGM has pink flowers that stand out against the dark colour of the leaves. The flowers are also more sweetly scented. In contrast, S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace' has more interesting foliage that is textured and feathery like a Japanese maple, with pink buds opening to cream flowers. These are cultivars of our native S. nigra, the common elder traditionally grown in hedgerows. In May to June they are tiered with umbels of tiny, scented flowers, followed by bunches of pellet-sized berries.

There are a further 24 species of perennial or shrubby elders spread over the temperate and subtropical parts of the globe. Only two of the species are widely used in landscaping: S. nigra produces the best purple-leaved cultivars and S. racemosa the yellow-leaved forms.

Landscapers use elders as border shrubs, stand-alone specimens or in wild or woodland gardens, where their bright yellow or dark plum foliage injects colour into planting schemes.

The best yellow cultivar is S. racemosa 'Plumosa Aurea', which has jagged leaves. The golden-leaved varieties such as S. nigra 'Albovariegata' produce better coloured foliage if pruned down to ground level in early spring. Left unpruned the foliage becomes smaller, but more flowers and berries are produced.

Their size can deter landscapers. S. nigra and cultivars reach up to 6m tall and S. racemosa to about 3m. There are a few smaller varieties such as S. racemosa 'Tenuifolia', which forms a 1m mound with yellow leaves.

Elders are pruned in spring before the new season's growth has appeared to whatever height suits their surroundings, from ground level upwards. Hard pruning produces bigger leaves. Taking out one-third of the old wood to ground level encourages new growth from below. Left alone, the bigger varieties quickly become woody and lose their attraction.

Elders are among the toughest of shrubs, unfussy about soil and largely disease-free. The purple-leaved varieties do well in full sun, the others prefer light shade.

Stock is increased by hardwood cuttings grown in the open ground in early winter or half-ripened young wood with a heel in cold frames. Some species are grown from seed.


- John Huibers, managing director, Tamar Nurseries, Cambridgeshire

"An increasing part of our Sambucus market is local authorities that want plants that have originated from locally collected seed. They use these to produce what they call 'green landscaping plants' for large, public areas such as roadsides. In effect, they want tough plants of local provenance suited to the low-maintenance environment. Both the green-leaved S. nigra and yellow-leaved S. nigra 'Aurea' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) are popular for this.

"We also supply more ornamental elders to architects and landscaping companies. Ones such as S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Beauty' AGM in flower are such a hot item they sell out at our cash and carry. The best elder, in my opinion, is S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace'. It looks great and even when it rains the drops hang off the leaves attractively.

"Local authorities consider these new cultivars expensive, but if they want to create a more unusual-looking roundabout display, sometimes they use them. We try to persuade them that you don't need many to fill a large space, as they grow quite big compared with other plants. Another one that has architectural value is S. racemosa 'Plumosa Aurea'. It is a striking plant with a golden-yellow leaf. Although, this one can easily be over-watered, which causes the roots to rot."

- Simon Barnes, manager, Farmyard Nurseries, Carmarthenshire

"The best introductions for years have been S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Beauty' AGM and S.nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace', which radically reduced our Japanese maple sales as it is much tougher and copes better with our windy Welsh weather.

"'Black Lace' has dark purple, finely cut leaves and champagne-scented, pink flowers, which turn a creamy colour. It is rather fast growing, but when it gets too big it can be pruned down to the ground and it grows back up again.

"'Black Beauty' AGM has more of a pink flower, but with the same dark purple foliage. It is not so finely dissected but the flowers are nicely scented. Customers tend to go for 'Black Lace' as it's the more delicate looking of the two, yet so tough. They both grow to about 3m tall and need light to enrich their colour.

"We sell S. racemosa 'Sutherland Gold' AGM, a popular yellow cultivar, which needs partial shade if the ground is dry. It contrasts well planted next to the darker leaves of 'Black Beauty' AGM. We also sell S. nigra 'Aureomarginata', which tends to need moister ground to succeed. This is a variety with pretty foliage with a yellow-edge leaf. S. nigra 'Madonna' is another good variegated cultivar."


- Lucy Benham, garden designer, London

"I use S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace' and S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Beauty' AGM for their foliage. They work well with softer plants growing through them, especially ornamental grasses such as Calamagrostis. They also don't cast a lot of shade, so you can plant under them.

"I find S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace' very variable. Some I've planted send out 2m-long shoots in a season, but I cut them down to their base in the winter, which keeps them in check.

"With the finer foliage ones, they are not hugely wind-resistant and gales can burn the leaves if they are planted somewhere very exposed."


- S. canadensis, the American elder, is not widely grown in the UK as there are better varieties, including our native elder S. nigra. It has green leaves, creamy white flowers and purple berries. It grows to 4m high.

- S. formosana is sold by Crug Farm Plants. It has large, pinnate leaves and big flowerheads, followed by orange berries.

- S. mexicana was collected in Guatemala by Crug Farm Plants. It has large, dark green pinnate leaves and big flowerheads, followed by grape-sized, blue-black berries.

- S. nigra, the common elder, is found in our hedgerows and woodland. It is a 6m-high shrub with toothed, green leaflets, panicles of white, scented flowers and black fruit.

- S. nigra 'Albovariegata' has grey-green leaves with creamy margins. Hard pruning in spring encourages better foliage colour.

- S. nigra 'Aurea' Award of Garden Merit (AGM), or golden elder, has golden-yellow foliage, which intensifies as it ages.

- S. nigra 'Aureomarginata' has dark green leaves edged with yellow.

- S. nigra 'Eva'PBR, syn. S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace' is a recent variety with finely cut, dark purple foliage, and pink-flushed blossoms.

- S. nigra 'Fructu Luteo' is known for its yellow berries.

- S. nigra 'Gerda' PBR AGM, syn. S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Beauty' AGM is a dark-leaved form with pink flowers.

- S. nigra 'Madonna' has grey-green leaves that are thickly edged in creamy yellow.

- S. nigra 'Marginata' has green leaves edged with irregular, yellow margins.

- S. nigra 'Purpurea', because of its similarities, is synonymous with S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Guincho Purple'.

- S. nigra forma laciniata AGM is commonly known as the fern-leaved or parsley-leaved elder. It has finely divided, pinnate, green foliage and large flowerheads.

- S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Beauty' AGM, see S. nigra 'Gerda' PBR.

- S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Black Lace', see S. nigra 'Eva' PBR.

- S. nigra forma porphyrophylla 'Guincho Purple' is also sold as S. nigra 'Purpurea'. It comes with green-tinged, burgundy-coloured leaves that turn red in autumn and produces pink-tinged flowers.

- S. racemosa 'Crug Lace' recommended as a hardy, lime-tolerant substitute for Acer. It grows into a weeping shrub 1m high and has lace-like foliage and creamy flowers.

- S. racemosa 'Plumosa Aurea', also known as red-berried elder, has golden foliage with jagged-edged leaves on arching branches, which are prone to scorching in hot sunlight.

- S. racemosa 'Sutherland Gold' AGM has finely divided, golden-yellow foliage. Less intense in yellow colour than 'Plumosa Aurea', but also less prone to sun scorch.

- S. racemosa 'Tenuifolia' is 1m high and has finely cut, yellow leaves.

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