Elderberries can help bring color to your garden

Posted July 02, 2010, at 8:44 p.m.

What is the true harbinger of spring in your garden, the one plant that defies the cold dampness of early April to open its buds ahead of all the others? In Marjorie’s garden, the emerging flower buds of red elder (Sambucus racemosa var. pubens) are a welcome signal to begin in earnest the gardener’s work. The growing season is upon us.

Some of our red elders, grown from seeds planted years ago by mice or birds, encircle the stout trunks of old yellow birches in a relatively dry site at the edge of the garden. Marjorie has pruned them into small multitrunk trees bearing gnarly branches that grow at all angles with the main trunks. In winter we enjoy their picturesque architecture.

When a red elder seedling appeared five years under the back porch steps, we discussed transplanting it to a more open spot, but then forgot about it. Over time it leaned more and more outward and now it grows on crooked stems into the light. By mid-April, protected against the damp cold by the nearby warm wall, it has unpacked its leaves and flowers, the latter beginning as rounded clusters of tight green buds, a reddish-purple blush over each cluster’s upper surface. They look like small heads of broccoli nested within unfolding leaves that are tiny replicates of the large pinnately compound structures they will soon become.

The red elders will be in full flower by the middle of May, their branches bending nearly to breaking with the heavy clusters of off-white flowers. Insect pollinators of all descriptions are attracted to these flowers, ensuring an abundance of fruit.

By mid-June, the bright red berries that give this plant its name are ripe. Last Tuesday, I flushed a wood thrush from the branches of the porch-side plant, no doubt interrupting a meal. (Berries of red elder are not edible by humans — leave them for the birds!)

In a wetter and slightly shadier bed close to the porch, we are growing several common elderberry shrubs (Sambucus canadensis), hoping to harvest the edible fruits if we can outsmart the birds. Over the years, as these plants have matured and spread, they have colonized the entire bed with pithy canes that sprout from underground stems. Old canes die back, but there are always young canes to take their place.

By mid-June, as the red elders are ripening fruit, the common elderberries are at the peak of bloom, their small off-white flowers, often called elderblow, borne in flat-topped clusters. The berries of these plants will not ripen until late summer when they become dark purple-black.

Although it is the berries of the common elder that are harvested for making wine and jams, the sweet scented and sweet tasting flowers are also edible, once cooked or processed (never eat the flowers directly from the plant). Do not rinse harvested flowers before use, as this will remove much of their sweetness; do look closely for insects.

Of course, this presents the gardener with a dilemma, whether to sacrifice a portion of the fruit harvest in favor of a little elderblow tea or a few elderblow corn fritters. (Recipes for the flowers of common elder can be found in Edible Flowers, From Garden to Palate, by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, Fulcrum Publishing, 1993).

We have discovered that both species of elderberry can be grown in the same garden. In the wild, they do show a difference in soil preference, red elders preferring dry soil while common elders are more often found in moist, well-drained soil, but we now have both species growing together in the same area of the garden. The contrast in color and texture between bright red berries and white elderblow are a highlight of our summer garden.

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