Plant Profiles: Sambucus
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Can't nuke us
Tall, wide, dense, deciduous shrub, 5 to 15 feet
Average in every way
Keep shrub to a few upright, open, and arching stems for a glorious specimen, or whack stems back in late winter for a modest 4- to 6-foot plant
Tired of reading about extraordinary plants you won't be able to grow because everything you bring home from the nursery just shrivels, sulks, and dies? Well if you promise not to put them in a dark corner with wretched soil and deprive them of light and water, I'd like to turn you on to a few fabulous shrubs you will not be able to kill.
The genus Sambucus, or elderberry, has the unenviable reputation of being a coarse, lanky, and out-of-control shrub. "If you have a small garden," one of my reference books says, "there is no reason for you to read about elders." (And people think I have an attitude). Admittedly, our native, thicket-forming American elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is not one to tuck in among your perennials, but so what. If there's a wild area in your garden and you do the edible plant thing, make this your first stop for elderberry jam, jelly, and wine.
Since my shtick is foliage, that's what I'm pushing. I've got two purples, going once, going twice, sold! to S. nigra 'Guincho Purple', whose dark green leaves mature to sumptuous black-purple (and have been known to hold though summer), then turn spirited red in fall. Old G. P. seems to be eclipsing S. nigra 'Purpurea', whose leaves are more likely to fade (though if you're in the southeast, even G.P. goes a sweaty green). Nevertheless, 'Purpurea' is a stunner in spring: by the time the flower buds plump up, the shrub has reached its deepest hue, all the better to set off its creamy pink blooms.
S. racemosa 'Sutherland Gold' offers sunlight brightness that never fades. Its finely dissected foliage emerges bright gold and remains audacious all season -- particularly in summer, when it dolls itself up in translucent, scarlet fruit. This relatively recent Canadian hybrid does not burn in full sun, unlike the century-old favorite, S. racemosa 'Plumosa Aurea'. The latter red-berried elder, still championed by a few as the best gold leaved shrub in cultivation, is slower growing and absolutely needs part shade.
S. nigra 'Laciniata', the fern-leaved elder, commands attention with texture rather than color; its tropically bold, deeply divided foliage makes it a valuable foil for generic greenery. A robust grower with big, white, flat June flowers, 'Laciniata' offers quite an impact without taking up too much visual space, and can double nicely as a jungle gym for flowering vines.
S. nigra 'Madonna' is a hot little number that also associates well with vines - or with any smaller plants that can make the most of her bright yellow variegation. Renowned for her diminutive stature - roughly four feet at maturity - she's one elderberry that doesn't tax your skills at managing size and scale. The only drawback is that 'Madonna' is a tad harder to please, which may increase the likelihood that you will kill her. And we don't want that.
Or do we? Th late, great horticulturist, J.C. Raulston once said, "You're not stretching yourself as a gardener if you're not killing plants." See what good gardeners we are?