“ Elderberry (Sambucus) is a genus of between 5-30 species of shrubs or small trees (two species herbaceous), formerly treated in the honeysuckle family Caprifoliaceae, but now shown by genetic evidence to be correctly classified in the moschatel family Adoxaceae. The genus is native to temperate to subtropical regions of both the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere; the genus is more widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, with Southern Hemisphere occurrence restricted to parts of Australasia and South America. „
Elder trees are very common in the UK, almost to the point where they are thought of as a weed. They can be found widely in temperate climates, even though the Latin name Sambucus Nigra provokes thoughts of more exotic climates. In late May to mid June the trees produce a mass of pungent white flowers, which then develop into berries which are ripe around September time. I go foraging and use both the flowers and the berries - they are one of nature's freebies with which we can make a couple of different drinks and the odd jam. More of that later.
If you're lucky enough to have one at the bottom of the garden - don't be tempted to dig it out and replace it with a more attractive tree! Most people don't rate them as an ornamental, but that's a matter of taste I suppose. If you think of them as more of a tree to use than a tree to look at then that will help. The smell of the blooms is part of the smell of a British summer and it's a smell that connects you to the outdoors as it's a unique smell which can't be found if you're stuck in the house. Also, the berries are a good food source for birds. I acknowledge that they can be a pain for spreading their seed - you'll find quite a few baby elder trees sprouting in the spring after the berries have dropped the previous autumn, but these are easily pulled out by hand. These saplings can then be either re-potted and grown on as new trees or chopped up and added to the compost bin.
If you haven't got an existing tree from which either to take cuttings from or to propagate seedlings, then buying one could be expensive. For a small tree roughly around a metre high, expect to pay anything from £1.94 (Ashridge trees on t'interweb, comes as a "bare root") to £50, depending on the supplier and size. The more expensive elder trees tend to be cultivated varieties with coloured leaves ranging from gold to deep purple. If you have bought a young tree, it will need staking in and protecting from gnawing animals (rabbits for example) until such time as it is tall enough to be self supporting. Once established, they are very hardy and can take some quite robust treatment - my mother in law prunes hers with the vigour of Freddy Kruger vs the Texas Chainsaw Massacre every winter and still it comes back strongly every spring. They do need a bit of pruning, if left unchecked they can grow to about ten metres high and you won't be able to reach the berries or flowers for picking.
PESTS AND DISEASES
The trees are prone to powdery mildew on the leaves. If this happens, just remove the affected areas and burn, don't compost. Also, I've noticed greenflies seem to make the leaves and flowers their home when I've been out foraging the flowers to make cordial and wine. Greenflies are easily removed by spraying them with soapy water.
Here comes the best bit. The flowers can be used to make cordial, wine and champagne - although technically it can't be called champagne because of that UN heritage foods preservation order thing, and to do so would risk angering the French and cause mile deep lorry blockades at the Calais ferry port and them to ban the importing of British Beef. Again. So, in the interests of international diplomacy, I'll call it sparkling wine. Also, the berries can be made into wine and can be cooked in foods like jam - they shouldn't be eaten raw as they can be toxic if not cooked.
To make the cordial, boil one litre of water per every twenty flower heads that you have picked. Add to this 400 grammes of sugar per litre of water (I know this is a lot, but elderflower cordial is a seasonal treat so it's not like you'll be battering your teeth every day) and half a sliced lemon per litre. If you've got a problem with the amount of sugar, try substituting it for honey or a powdered sweetener. When the sugar has dissolved, throw in the flower heads and take off the heat, cover and leave overnight to steep and cool down. Strain all the bits out the next day and pour into sterilised cordial bottles (I re-use empty plastic cordial bottles and wash them in the dishwasher to sterilise them). It will last for about two weeks in the fridge, but if I've made a lot I freeze some where I've found that when I take a bottle out and defrost it for use over Christmas, it is fine. As the cordial doesn't have all the additives that factory made cordial would have, it does weaken down quite rapidly when water is added, so to get around this I add the cordial neat to other drinks such as white wine, Robinsons Peach and Barley cordial (it works really well with this) and any jugs of various booze and lemonade that my wife and I will sometimes share one of on a Saturday night in. The floral taste compliments fruity tastes - experiment and try adding elderflower cordial to various drinks and see what works for you.
To make the wine, make as per the cordial, but then only add the yeast when the water has cooled down. I use a teaspoon and a half of dried yeast. Leave the yeast to fizz and bubble for a week, then de-activate it (Wilkinsons sell a good yeast deactivator for around £1.50 for a small tub) and strain all the bits (proper name for the bits is "must") out. Leave this standing (covered of course, or in an airtight container such as a lidded bucket or a demijohn) for another week while the sediment settles, then siphon into bottles, cork them and leave for another two to three weeks to mature. I'll be honest, my homemade wine is always a bit rough (I reckon it could fuel most diesel cars) and is only made palatable when watered down with lemonade, but the elderflower wine I've made this year is my best yet and can be handled without having to book a week off work after sharing just the one bottle.
The champagne, sorry, sparkling wine is made using the natural yeast on the flowers to provide the fizz and the fermentation process is never stopped. Not stopping fermentation beforehand can be dangerous when the sparkling wine is bottled - carbon dioxide is produced during the fermentation process and a build up can cause the container to explode. To reduce the danger of exploding bottles, use a plastic bottle with a screw cap lid so that if the gas does build up (which it will) and cause an explosion, the worst that will happen is the lid will pop off and there might be a bit of a spillage to mop up, as opposed to broken glass. Boil the water, sliced lemon and sugar up as you would for the cordial, then cover and allow to cool to room temperature (this may take overnight). When the temperature is right, add the flower heads and cover again with some muslin - muslin allows very small wild, natural yeasts that are floating about in the air to enter the mix but no bits of dust, cat hair, small inquisitive children's mucky fingers etc. After about four or five days, the mix should be fizzing away nicely, if it is not then add a small pinch of yeast to help it on it's way. Two or three days after this it should now be fermenting, if so, strain out all the flower heads and lemon slices then bottle up or drink straight away to cut out the risk of exploding bottles. If you're sober when you drink this, you will notice an ever so slight fizzing on the tongue. If, however, you are on your third bottle of the stuff, you probably won't be able to feel your face, let alone some tiny fermentation bubbles!
In Italy, the flowers are picked by the head, dipped in a sweet batter mix and shallow fried, then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I've never tried this but do like the sound of it. I'm afraid though that I would be the only one to eat this in my house - I can just imagine the look of revulsion and horror were I to offer my children some fried flower petals. They have only just got used to picking and eating strawberries straight from the garden and not supermarket bought ones, so elderflower fritters are a long way off yet! When making these, leave an inch or two of the stalk on behind the flower petals, but only as something to pinch and hold onto when putting them in and out of the frying pan as they are toxic to eat.
The berries are also toxic to eat, but only if eaten raw. They can be boiled up nicely and used in jams - I add them in home made apple sauce for a bit of colour contrast. They can also be made into cordials and wines in the same way as the flowers are. For removing the berries from the stalks (remember the stalks are toxic so you don't want any of these in), I saw a good tip in the Self Sufficientish Bible - run the stalks through the tines of a fork to tease the berries off, it's much quicker than doing it by hand and also won't stain your fingers. If you are using the berries for wine making, you will need to gently mush them up to release the juices.
If you are going to go elderflower picking, make sure that you don't get it confused with ground elder, which looks similar but is not good to eat. Basically, elder is a tree - so don't pick what look to be elder flowers unless you see a tree from which they are growing. A quick Google images search will quickly show you what I mean if there is any doubt.
The berries are a good source of vitamin C and fibre, and both the flowers and berries are believed to be good for fighting off mild colds. I'm no scientist, but would guess that the vitamin C content probably aids the cold fighting properties? Again, don't eat the berries raw and don't ever eat the stalks, bark or leaves.
Seen by many as a hedgerow weed, elders are a tree that give us a choice of flowers or berries with which to make wines, cordials and jams. Some might say that elderflower wine is an acquired taste, I say you should just add a bit of lemonade and drink it - after all, it only costs the price of a bag of sugar, a packet of yeast and a couple of lemons to make a good six litres worth. For it's amount of uses, and the fact that they grow all around us (in effect giving us a free supply of wine making material without the need for a massive garden of our own to accommodate the trees) I'd recommend that the elder gets five stars, and also I'd recommend that you should at the very least try making your own elderflower cordial if you've never been foraging before but are willing to give it a go the next time you take the dog for a walk. Thanks for reading.
In the area of Lancashire where I grew up it was often said that the summer began when the elder was fully in flower and ended when the elderberries were ripe. The common elder (latin name sambucus nigra) often referred to as the elderberry, is a native shrub or small tree which is found dotted around the lanes and hedgerows throughout most of the British Isles. In Spring the tree is a mass of blossom in the form of flattened creamy white florets slightly resembling cow parsley and this is followed in the Autumn by clusters of small black berries. Both the blossom and the berries can be used for medicinal and culinary purposes, especially for cordials and for wine making.
There are two very good reasons why the elder in its native form doesn't make the perfect garden shrub. Firstly, the berries are very attractive to birds which in itself isn't a bad thing but the resulting mess after the birds have eaten can be a nuisance, especially if the tree is situated close to the house, or more to the point, close to where you've parked your car. Bird poo is extremely corrosive and if left on the paintwork will burn through very quickly. The second reason, and possibly the more important, for not using the native species is that it isn't the most striking of shrubs when not in flower or bearing its berries. It's just ordinary and green and it's deciduous to boot.
There are, however, several cultivated varieties available which although still deciduous are far more interesting in terms of leaf shape and colour and can be treated more like a shrub. I have two varieties growing in my garden; one, the golden elder (sambucus nigra aurea) which, as the name implies, has yellow leaves and the other is a black leaved species (sambucus nigra 'Black Lace'), a stunning variety with deep purple leaves which are finely dissected and turn the most glorious, fiery red in Autumn. I've had both these plants for a little over three years now and they are well established in my garden and planted as far away from the house as possible to avoid messy windows!
The golden elder and the several black leaved varieties all make wonderful foils when planted against other shrubs. My golden elder is planted in front of a dark green conifer in a relatively shady spot and the bright yellow leaves make it seem as though the sun is always shining. The black leaved variety is planted next to a variegated dogwood and gives a good contrast between the dappled leaves of the dogwood and the deep purply black of the elder.
~ Buying ~
Although I daresay it's permissible to uproot a small sapling of the native species to grow on, for the reasons I've given above, you'd be better advised to buy a pot grown named variety from a reputable nursery or garden centre. Even Amazon sell several species of sambucus nigra and one of the sellers (Garden Expert/Imberhorne Lane Nursery) is known to me as I've bought other plants from him, all of which were of superb quality and still thriving in my garden.
I bought both my sambucus nigra about three years ago from a local nursery and prices will have risen since then but a well grown plant in a 3 litre pot should cost somewhere in the region of between £8 and £15, depending on the size and variety purchased. This may sound rather expensive but the plant will give you years of outstanding beauty and will probably outlive you into the bargain!
~ Varieties available ~
The most commonly available varieties from garden centres and nurseries are the golden elder (sambucus nigra aurea), a green leafed variety with finely cut leaves (sambucus nigra laciniata) and there are several species of the black leaved elder including 'Black Lace' and 'Black Beauty'.
To see the many variations in leaf colour and shape as well as blossom colour and berries, I suggest you visit Google Images and type in 'sambucus nigra'.
~ Planting and growing ~
The beauty of this shrub is that it grows just about anywhere and is happy in practically any soil type right through to clay. One of the main reasons why I purchased my plants originally was because I'm unable to grow acers in my garden other than in pots which never seem to survive the winter. I searched for something with a similar kind of foliage and found sambucus nigra makes an ideal substitute bearing the same or very similar leaf shapes and colours and as well as having berries, adds a touch of the Orient to the garden.
These plants will thrive in sun or partial shade and just like the native variety they aren't at all fussy about soil condition either. Just dig a hole and stick the plant in there, remembering to tease out a few of the roots from the root ball first to give it a helping hand. Keep well watered for the first year until it's established and then just sit back and watch it romp away.
Although I grow my plants in the garden as shrubs, sambucus nigra can also be used as hedging or also planted in a large container as a specimen plant although restricting its roots will probably also restrict its growth.
The elderflowers which appear in late Spring/early Summer are very attractive and range from creamy white to deep pink on the cultivated varieties and are useful for attracting insects, especially hoverflies which, as most gardeners know, are great for disposing of unwanted garden pests such as greenfly. The flowers of the native species can be gathered and made into elderflower cordial. Currently my plants don't produce anywhere near enough flowers to make attempting this worthwhile and, of course, gathering the flowers means no berries in the Autumn.
The berries are a great source of food for wild birds (although not without consequence as I've already said) and these can also be gathered for human consumption to added to pies or for winemaking. Sadly, I doubt any cultivated and pruned variety would produce enough berries to make even half a bottle of wine, delicious though elderberry wine is. Both infusions of the elderflower and the elderberry are often used medicinally for reducing fever and easing chesty coughs. Elderflower cordial is a deliciously refreshing drink, especially if made with sparkling water.
~ Care and attention ~
These shrubs need very little in the way of specialist care. Being bred from a native species, they're fully hardy and can survive the toughest of winters. Both mine have come through the last two bad winters totally unscathed and have no signs of either frost or wind damage. However, they can grow pretty tall and if left to their own devices will eventually reach upwards of 20 feet (6 metres) in height and spread, so some judicious pruning will probably be needed unless you want to end up with a tree that is.
For best leaf colour, the shrub should be cut back hard in early Spring, although if you want good blossom and fruit, it's wise to leave the plants for a year or so before doing any major pruning. Pruning has the added benefit of reinvigorating the plant and keeping a good shape, preventing it from becoming straggly as well as helping to restrict its height. After 3 years my plants are roughly 3 feet (1 metre) high and have only been gently pruned to keep them a good shape. Once they've doubled in height, I'll continue to prune to keep them to a manageable size.
I should warn you that with the black leaved varieties, the new leaf growth comes through as a dull green before turning dark purple as the leaves mature, so don't think that your plant is reverting to type.
The elder is relatively pest resistant, too, although it may be infested by black fly, especially if planted near roses.
~ Propagation ~
Increasing your stock of this plant is relatively easily done through softwood or hardwood cuttings and, of course, the birds may just give you a helping hand, though any sapling grown this way may well revert to its original form.
To my mind, the common elder in its cultivated form is a must for any reasonably sized garden as long as it's planted well away from the house or any parked cars. It offers shelter and food for the birds, attracts helpful insects into the garden as well as adding colour and interest from Spring right through to the Autumn, and although fairly fast growing it's easily kept in check, all of which more than make up for the fact that it's deciduous. There are several varieties to choose from, all offering something different either in shape and colour of leaf or blossom colour. This is without doubt a very attractive plant which can be grown successfully by even the most novice gardener.
This plant may be known to botonists as the Common Elder but it's anything but common!