How to grow Sambucus
Sambucus, or elder, are vigorous trees with large creamy flowerheads in summer, followed by small black berries. Several cultivars are available with ornamental golden or purple leaves. They thrive in most soils, both wet and dry, so are a particularly good choice for difficult areas.
- Easy-to-grow tree or large shrub
- Frothy white flowerheads in summer
- Small black berries, loved by birds
- Cultivars offer a choice of leaf colours
- Grow in sun or partial shade
- Tolerate wet and dry soils
- Flowers can be used to make summer drinks
All you need to know
What are Sambucus?
Sambucus, or elder, are vigorous deciduous trees or large shrubs. Often seen in hedgerows and waste ground, elders are also valuable additions to gardens, being hardy, easy to maintain and wildlife friendly. They are covered in large creamy-white flowerheads in early summer, followed by clusters of small black berries. The flowers are popularly used to make cordial or a naturally fermented sparkling ‘champagne’.
There are several species, but the most widely available is our native elder, Sambucus nigra, of which there are various cultivars, some with pink flowers and/or purple or yellow leaves.
Elders are happy in sun or partial shade, are not fussy about soil type, and will tolerate wet and dry conditions, so are particularly useful for tricky areas.
All parts of Sambucus are poisonous, but ripe berries are edible if cooked, for jams or chutneys, and can be used to make wine or cordials. The flowers can also be steeped in lemon, citric acid, sugar and hot water to make a cordial, or used to flavour cakes and desserts.
How to choose elders
Our native elder, Sambucus nigra, is a popular choice for naturalistic and wildlife-friendly gardens. It forms a large shrub or medium-sized tree (up to 6m/20ft) with abundant flowers for pollinating insects, berries that are eaten by birds and small mammals, and leaves that are food for the caterpillars of several moth species.
Many cultivars of S. nigra are available, with different coloured leaves, flowers and berries. Options include dark purple or yellow leaves, lacy or ferny foliage, pink flowers, and purplish berries. The cultivars are generally less vigorous than S. nigra, usually forming shrubs rather than trees.
You may also find a few cultivars of the European red elder (S. racemosa) – a shrub with lacy leaves – mainly from specialist tree and shrub stockists. These include S. racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’ with yellow leaves and ‘Tenuifolia’ with red berries.
Most elders need plenty of space, as they can easily reach 3–4m (10–13ft) tall if left to grow. However, they can also be hard pruned annually to keep them more compact, which can also lead to more colourful leaves.
How and what to buy
Elders are readily available from garden centres and nurseries, as well as online outlets by mail order. Tree and shrub specialists stock the widest choice of cultivars.
Plants are usually sold in 3 litre pots or larger. As elders grow quite quickly, it’s not usually worth buying a mature specimen.
Choose plants with plenty of young, vigorous stems and a well-balanced shape
Reject plants with broken stems or leaf damage
Avoid those with moss or weeds in the pot, as they may be older plants that haven’t sold
For more information on buying good quality plants, use our guides below.
When to plant Sambucus
Container-grown elders can be planted at any time of year, but avoid planting when the soil is wet or frozen in winter, and during dry spells in summer. Planting in spring and autumn is best.
Where to plant Sambucus
Elders will grow well in any soil that is not prone to waterlogging.
They like sun or partial shade. However, cultivars with golden leaves can lose some of their colour if planted in a location that is too shady.
How to plant Sambucus
Elders are easy to plant – see our step-by-step guides below.
Before planting, it is best to prepare the whole planting area (not just the planting hole) by digging in plenty of organic matter, such as garden compost or well-rotted manure. Dig in one bucketful per square metre (square yard) to a spade’s depth.
You should water newly planted elders regularly for at least the first year, until their roots have spread out into the soil.
Once established, elders are drought tolerant and shouldn’t need additional watering.
However, during periods of prolonged drought they may need additional water even when established. Look out for signs of water stress: shrivelled leaves with brown edges and leaves falling off prematurely.
Elders don’t generally need feeding, but to encourage vigorous growth after pruning, you can feed in spring. Use a general-purpose fertiliser, such as Growmore or fish, blood and bone, then apply a mulch of organic matter.
Young elders don’t need to be pruned until they have become established, so a couple of years after planting.
Pruning is not essential, but can be done:
to keep these vigorous plants to a manageable size, with fresh growth low down
to reduce the size of a large, well-established tree that has outgrown its space
to encourage more ornamental foliage – hard pruning established elder in late winter or early spring encourages a flush of new growth that carries particularly bright and vibrant leaves
For step-by-step instructions on these techniques, see our pruning guides below.
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