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GardenSMART :: Identifying the Elderberry That's Right for You

Identifying the Elderberry That's Right for You

By Natalie Carmolli, Proven Winners® ColorChoice®
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners

If you're like most people, you've probably heard of elderberries. For centuries, people have enjoyed using the fruit and flowers of the Sambucus plant to make tasty products like tea, wine, juice, and jam, and many people swear by syrups made from elderberries to help soothe coughs and colds. However, Sambucus is also often grown in landscapes simply for its beautiful foliage and showy flowers.

No matter what a gardener's intentions are, it's important to know that all Sambucus are not interchangeable. With multiple species, varieties and sizes to choose from, having a clear idea of what you want to do with the plant, and how much space you have to devote to one, is something to consider when choosing a Sambucus for your garden or landscape.

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Sambucus fruit, toxicity, and pollination

If you're looking for a fall harvest of fruit, Sambucus nigra (and S. canadensis, which is closely related to S. nigra) is the species of elderberry that is edible and has medicinal uses. Even at that, black elderberries should only be consumed when they are fully ripe and should not be eaten raw as the seeds contain glycosides, a mild toxin, and can make you sick. However, cooking the berries destroys the glycosides present in the seeds, making the berries with their seeds safe to eat. While the red berries on S. racemosa are technically edible, they are also considered the most toxic of the elderberries to humans, so unless you are an experienced herbalist or horticulturist, they should probably be left on the plant for the birds to enjoy. Leaves, woody stems, and roots on all species of Sambucus are toxic and should not be consumed under any circumstances.

For those looking to add an elderberry plant to their garden or landscape, Proven Winners® ColorChoice® offers three varieties of Sambucus nigra and one S. racemosa. It's important to note: If you want any of your Sambucus plants to produce fruit you'll need to plant another variety of the same species as a pollinator. Suggestions are listed below.

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Sambucus nigra

In general, American black elderberry is a huge shrub, reaching heights/widths as large as 15', but Proven Winners® Black Lace® Sambucus nigra is much smaller, at just 7-8'. With intense purple-black foliage that is finely cut like lace, the appearance is similar to that of Japanese maple. Showy pink flowers in early summer contrast with the dark leaves for a stunning effect and give way to the edible (when cooked!) black berries if a compatible pollinator, like Laced Up® or Black Beauty® Sambucus nigra is planted within about a 50' radius.

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The variegated Instant Karma® Sambucus nigra can grow to about 8' tall and wide and offers neat, clean foliage of interplaying green and white. Large, white, lacy flower clusters appear in early summer, and if a pollinator variety (like Black Lace® or Laced Up® elderberry) is present, you'll get a crop of purple-black fruit in autumn. This versatile plant can be grown as a small tree or large shrub – it even plays nice in a perennial garden if it is cut back in spring each year for a handsome spray of bright foliage.

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Laced Up® elderberry will reach heights of about 10', but has a tight, columnar habit that only takes up a few feet of ground. Feathery black foliage covers broomstick-straight stems that shoot toward the sky and early summer brings hundreds of pink flowers that give way to black berries when an appropriate pollinator (such as any of the Sambucus nigra listed above) is sited nearby.

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Sambucus racemosa

Finally, Proven Winners® ColorChoice® hardiest elderberry, Lemony Lace® Sambucus racemosa offers finely dissected foliage in a cheery gold color. This North American native produces big clusters of white flowers in early spring before the foliage emerges, then bright yellow leaves take over, edged in red. As the foliage ages, it turns an attractive chartreuse. Consider Lemony Lace® for its beautiful foliage and flowers, for although Sambucus racemosa will produce a red berry when pollinated, and some claim they can be eaten, it is a hard, mealy berry that, as stated earlier in the article, can be more toxic than the black elderberry and consumption isn't recommended. While several varieties of generic Sambucus racemosa are widely available, Proven Winners® does not carry a pollinator for this species.

Care and treatment

Sambucus in general take well to pruning, which is best done after blooming. It is a bold plant with vigorous growth, and many people find success treating it as a perennial, cutting it back hard in spring to control its size. Sambucus blooms on old wood, so this approach will remove the flowers, but the foliage of these five varieties is so attractive that you may not miss them.

Site your new elderberry plant in well-draining soil and plan on giving it a good weekly watering during its first summer in the ground. Once it's established, Sambucus is very easy to grow and maintain. It's hardy down to USDA zone 4, adaptable to almost any soil, drought tolerant, deer resistant, and a beautiful, ornamental plant.


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