Different cultivars, different colours
From the same species comes ‘Guincho Purple', with green foliage and pink-flushed flowers in summer. It's an ideal companion for a variegated shrub such as Weigela florida ‘Variegata'. ‘Aurea' European elder (also known as the golden elder) has broad, golden yellow leaves and cherry red fruit and makes a striking hedge along a fence with ‘Emerald' or ‘Holmstrup' cedar (Thuja occidentalis), where its two-metre-long, chartreuse wands wave at the sky. But for gold brilliance in a shrub, the Canadian-bred ‘Sutherland Gold' European red elder is unbeatable with its filigreed leaves and creamy white flowers; it grows to almost two metres tall.
Making a striking, dramatic appearance is the British cultivar Black Beauty European elder (shown at left), with increased cold-hardiness and intensely black foliage that retains its colour when planted in full sun. Large, pink flowers are lemon-scented and produce bounteous inky black fruit. Pairing Black Beauty with ‘Sutherland Gold' makes an inspired combination of light and dark foliage. I would embellish the grouping further by including the sensual stems of beautiful blue Arctic willow (Salix purpurea ‘Nana').
The newest British cultivar is the Black Lace European elder (shown at left), with deeply cut, charcoal black foliage and clusters of creamy pink flowers and red-black autumn berries. It would make a happy marriage coupled with the generously cream-splashed green leaves of another European, ‘Pulverulenta'. Black Lace is another substitution for lace-leaf Japanese maple in cold regions where the tender dissectum maples won't grow.
Elders will grow well in most soils, providing moisture is consistent. Amend the planting hole with composted manure to promote healthy growth. Unless you can provide irrigation, plant in naturally wet or loamy areas near ponds or bogs. Avoid heavily compacted soil, or improve drainage with coarse sand and organic material. The best leaf colours and fruit are produced when nitrogen fertilizer is applied in spring. Use a balanced granular fertilizer (such as 7-7-7) or blood meal. Elders can be pruned each winter to control size and keep plants vigorous. Cut out spindly canes and remove wood older than three years to encourage vigorous growth and heavy flower heads.
How to deal with a sick elder
American elder is naturalized in much of eastern North America. European elder has been cultivated in Europe, northern Africa and western Asia since ancient times. Elders are well adapted to our regions, with not too many problems when grown in moderately moist soil. The ball-shaped blooms of the American appear in July, a full month later than the flatter flower heads of the European.
Powdery mildew, leaf spot and canker on twigs and branches caused by fungi may appear in overly wet seasons. Prune and discard infected pieces. Stem borers may cause dieback of shoots and branches. Prune and destroy infested parts as soon as you notice them.
Elders self-seed, producing generous quantities of berries, but will put out bumper crops when cross-pollinated by a different cultivar blooming nearby. ‘Maxima' American elder has the largest berries in clusters up to 45 centimetres wide that are born on rose-purple flower stalks. Its cooked berries are particularly fine for preserves.
Inset photos courtesy of Proven Winners. Top photo: Sambucus Nigra (European elder)