Elderberry overlooked as garden specimen

Beautiful berries from the native elderberry plant.

Many native plants are considered so ubiquitous that they are deemed weeds or “trash plants.” There are many garden-worthy gems right under our noses that deserve a second look. One steadfast flowering example is the common elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis).

This native plant often is overlooked because it is not as widely available commercially as other more exotic elderberries.

But with its showy flowers, low maintenance and versatility, elderberry is a great choice for the home landscape.

The genus originates from the Greek sambuce, an ancient musical instrument. Native Americans transformed the hollow stems into whistles and ceremonial clappers. In the Middle Ages, the plant was considered holy, restoring health and wellbeing. Considering the berries are incredibly high in Vitamin C, it’s no wonder.

Traditionally, the berries are used in pies, jellies, syrups, candy and wine (Note: Berries must be cooked prior to consuming; the raw blue/black fruit are slightly toxic.). The entire flower head makes a great fritter when battered and deep-fried. The flowers also may be eaten raw or steeped into teas.

Elderberry is perfect for birders or wildlife gardening enthusiasts. Its berries are an important source of summer food for more than 50 kinds of songbirds across the country, including indigo bunting, red-shafted flicker, mockingbird, red-breasted nuthatch, song sparrow and cedar waxwing (“American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits,” A.C. Martin, et al., 1951).

The pollen of the white flowers attracts beneficial insects such as native bees and beetles. Syrphid flies love the tiny flowers and are an important natural predator of aphids and other garden pests. The hollow stems of common elderberry also provide nesting material for Mason and little carpenter bees.

As a landscape plant, you couldn’t ask for more versatility.

This gracefully arching, deciduous shrub often has both woody and herbaceous stems at the same time and tops out at around 10-12 feet tall. Clump forming elderberry takes pruning well, which makes it ideal for “limbing up” into small trees or hard pruning to encourage dense foliage for screens and hedges.

Elderberry will tolerate a variety of soil types and landscape situations. While it prefers moist soils and full sun, it also adapts to partial shade with less moisture. Some horticulturists note that less moisture keeps the clumpforming shrub to a more manageable size in small yards.

Creamy clouds of early summer flowers are eye catching when planted en masse, as are single specimens. My favorite aspect is the amazing movement created by the many pollinating insects hovering over the flowers. Dark blue to purple berries are attractive, although the birds gobble them up too quickly for us to truly enjoy them.

In the home landscape, use elderberry in naturalized areas, bog gardens, along roads and ditches, as screens, hedges, small trees or as accent plants. In my landscape, a limbed up elderberry thrives under pines alongside camellias, hydrangeas, agapanthus, and ferns.

Fortunately, for those of us who love unusual cultivated varieties, there have been several improved varieties added to Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis. Be wary of Asian and European varieties, as they lack appeal for many of our native wildlife populations. Additionally, the red berries of Sambucus racemosa, the Western species, are poisonous even when cooked!

When shopping for plants, look carefully at plant tags to ensure that you are purchasing the native species:

‘Aurea’ has yellow to yellowish-green leaves that hold their color even in warm Southern climates. Harsh pruning in late winter-early spring will yield dense foliage and copious blooms.

‘Acutiloba’ (also listed as ‘Laciniata’) is a smaller form and features leaflets that are deeply incised. It grows to 8 feet tall and does not fruit as well as the species.

‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are selected for their larger, more numerous fruits; they are otherwise similar to the species. These selections often are planted by gardeners interested in the edible fruit. It’s best to plant two for better pollination and fruit production.

‘Variegata’ has narrow leaflets that are outlined in creamy white-yellow. It appreciates some protection from direct sun.

If you are more interested in the species than in cultivars, there is no reason to purchase elderberry. They are simple to propagate by seed, division, or semi-hardwood cuttings that can be collected without harming wild populations, but be sure you have permission to collect from the landowner.

For complete propagation information, go to www. nativeplantnetwork.org.

Calling all budding history buffs. Join Clemson Extension on July 15-19 for 4-H Explorer: History Camp.

Kids ages 8-12 may at- tend this camp, where they will explore the rich heritage and culture of the Lowcountry.

See a new historical site each day, including Fort Moultrie and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.

Go on a guided walking tour of historic Charleston, embark on an archaeolo- gical dig at the Dill Sanc- tuary on James Island, participate in Patriot Day to experience life just as the Colonists did, learn authentic weaving techniques to create your own sweetgrass basket, and more.

All admission and activity fees, transportation, snacks and water will be provided in the session cost of $125. Class size is limited to 15 youths. Register at http://bit.ly/13Fkhek.

Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and tri-county Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to gardening@postandcourier.com.