Sambucus - flat-topped and glorious



Certain shrubs slot into the border with ease, partly because their flowers resemble herbaceous perennials. The elders (Sambucus) may not sound exciting, but they shouldn’t be confused with our roadside native. There are dark-leaved forms with finely cut foliage, that proffer champagne-pink flowers. Their summer flowers persist well and show up beautifully against the almost black foliage.

Interestingly these dark-leaved elders arrived almost by accident when an East Malling researcher, Ken Tobutt, was studying gene flow in the early 1980s. He planted lots of different Sambucus, crossed them to identify dominant and recessive genes, and one black-leaved one stood out. When the experiment ended he decided it was too good to scrap. It was originally named ‘Black Beauty’, but is now officially called Sambucus nigra f.porphyrophylla 'Gerda'. There is also a closely related black elder with lacier foliage, once ‘Black Lace’ but now renamed Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla 'Eva'. Both have been awarded an AGM on RHS trials and both these easily grown, medium-sized shrubs provide black foliage, a great foil for their pink flowers.

You can treat ornamental elders in two different ways. If you prune them hard in late-spring they develop sumptuous foliage - at the expense of flower. If you lightly prune them you get more flower heads, but the leaves are smaller. Whenever foliage is key, as it is with black-leaved elders, it’s probably wiser to prune harder for better foliage, although the flowers are highly attractive to a range of insects. Always allow two or three years for your shrub to become established before you hard prune - and that’s good advice for any plant. Let it develop a root system first.