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Raw fruit of some types can cause gastric distress

Sambucus

Elderberry

Deciduous, Edible fruit, Shrubs, Trees

Grow these large, airy deciduous shrubs for their white spring flowers and colorful summer berries. In big gardens, they make effective summer screens or windbreaks. To keep shrubby types dense, prune hard in the dormant season, removing older stems and heading back last year’s growth to a few inches. Overgrown plants can be cut to the ground. Types that grow into trees need early training to single or multiple trunks.

The various elder species have bright to dark green leaves and near-black, blue, or red berries. Fruit of red-berried species and of S. nigra caerulea can cause gastric upset in humans if consumed raw in large quantities. (Red-fruited forms of black- and blue-berried species are not poisonous.) Species names are presently in flux.

Sambucus canadensis

Native to central and eastern North America. Grown mostly in cold-winter climates. Spreading, suckering shrub to 12 ft. tall and wide. Each leaf has seven 2–6-in.-long leaflets. Blooms in early summer, bearing flat, creamy white flower clusters to 10 in. wide; these are followed by tasty purple-black berries. The fruit is used for pies; both flowers and fruit are used for wine. Strictly fruiting varieties include ‘Adams’ and the larger-fruited (and later) ‘York’; plant both for cross-pollination. ‘Aurea’ has golden green foliage (golden in full sun) and red berries.

Sambucus nigra ‘Aureomarginata’ (photo courtesy of Linda Lamb Peters)
Sambucus nigra ‘Aureomarginata’ (photo courtesy of Linda Lamb Peters)

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Sambucus nigra

Shrub or tree. Native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Shrubby, upright growth to 20–30 ft. tall and wide. Each leaf is up to 10 in. long and divided into many oval, pointed leaflets. Scented white flowers come in flat-topped, 5–8-in.-wide clusters in late spring or early summer. Purple-black berries are less than 1/2 in. across; for maximum fruit production, plant two different varieties. ‘Aurea’, 10–20 ft. tall and broad, has yellow new growth maturing to yellow-green. ‘Guincho Purple’, to 15 ft. tall and 10 ft. wide, has green foliage that matures to deep purple, then turns red in fall; purple flower stems bear pink buds that open to pink-tinged white blossoms. ‘Black Beauty’ (‘Gerda’) is similar but retains its black color throughout the growing season.

Several varieties grow to 6–8 ft. tall and wide: ‘Aureomarginata’, green leaves edged in yellow; ‘Laciniata’, very finely cut green foliage; and white-fruited ‘Marginata’ (‘Albovariegata’, ‘Variegata’), green leaves bordered in creamy white.

Two smaller selections (4–5 ft. tall and wide) are ‘Madonna’, bearing green leaves that are variegated in light green to chartreuse when young, and ar evariegated in cream, yellow, or gray-green when mature; and ‘Pulverulenta’, with leaves that unfold white, then mature to green splashed and striped with white.

Sambucus nigra caerulea

Native from California north to British Columbia, east to the Rockies. Grows to 10–30 ft. tall and 8–20 ft. wide. Leaves are divided into five to nine toothed, 1–6-in.-long leaflets. White or creamy white flowers in flat-topped, 2–8-in.-wide clusters in spring and summer. Clusters of blue to nearly black berries, usually covered with whitish powder, follow the flowers. Fruit is often used in jams, jellies, pies, and wine. Drought-tolerant, but it looks better (and keeps its foliage in summer) if given moderate water.

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