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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Elderberries grace the edible garden
Beauty, edible fruit, and vigor characterize this native and its related species

by Carolyn Singer
February 25, 2012

CA native elderberryAn ornamental shrub with strikingly beautiful foliage all season, and delicious fruit, many species of elderberry (Sambucus) are important additions to the edible garden. Just give them adequate space, as most will have a spread of ten feet, or more if you encourage multiple stems.

Since the deer will browse on the foliage, it's best to keep the plant inside a fenced area. This is a tall shrub (to ten foot height or more), sometimes trained as a multi-stemmed small tree. I have often placed it in the corner of the fenced area, protecting the lower foliage, but allowing it to spread gracefully over the fence, the upper foliage still out of reach of the deer.

Our native elderberry, Sambucus mexicana (photo, above right), grows very fast with good soil and irrigation. Within one year from a small plant, a large shrub will provide a harvest of blue-black berries. Enough to make all the elderberry syrup you need. A California native that usually grows along creeks and rivers where soils are more fertile, Sambucus mexicana will also grow under dry conditions, often seen along roadsides where the only moisture is rainfall.

fernleaf elderberryIn the edible garden, other species have a range of foliage characteristics and fruiting habit. One of my favorites is the cutleaf or fernleaf elderberry, Sambucus nigra 'Laciniata' (photo left), its delicate lacy foliage a stark contrast to the strength of its growth habit. In one Cedar Ridge garden where I used it to screen the view of a storage barn, it has matured to over fifteen feet in height and spread. But it can be pruned if a smaller plant is desired.

'Black Beauty' elderberryThe more compact (under ten foot height and spread) Sambucus nigra 'Black Beauty' (photo right) with purple-black foliage, and 'Black Lace' with dark-red finely cut foliage both differ from the other species with pink rather than the more common white flowers. The contrast of the flowers with the foliage is lovely, and the edible blue-black fruit adds even more beauty by summer's end. Both should grow in full sun or very light shade, an exposure that is ideal for the elderberries described above.

variegated elderberryIf your garden is more shady, plant the variegated elderberry, with green and white leaves, Sambucus nigra 'Marginata' (photo left), also sold as 'Albo-variegata' and 'Variegata'. Filtered sunlight under larger trees is a perfect exposure. If any direct sun will hit the leaves, it should be morning sun, not intense direct afternoon sun.

Raintree Nursery (800-391-8892) in Morton WA has a broad selection of elderberries, although some cannot be shipped to California. Three that can are a heavy-bearing Austrian cultivar, 'Haschberg' with large berries, a Danish cultivar, 'Samdal' recommended for jam or elderberry wine, and 'Goldbeere', a German selection with unusual golden berries.

Propagating elderberries is easy, as I discovered once I started growing this amazing plant. One year I used some of the wood I had pruned to mark rows in the vegetable garden. Soon I had elderberries sprouting throughout the edible garden! Selecting branch sections with buds as close together as possible, leave three buds on each section of last year's woody growth. Cut just above and just below two of the buds. Insert the two lower buds into compost and keep irrigated. These rooted cuttings may be planted in fall.

CA native elderberry flowersFlowers of elderberry are tiny, clustered in umbels up to eight inches in width. Fragrance is not strong, but it does add that element to the garden. Some gardeners use the flowers for tea, or cut flowers. On a mature shrub there will be flowers for cutting and tea, and still berries for jam, wine, medicinal syrup, and the birds. The harvest is plentiful from this essential shrub for the edible garden.

fernleaf elderberryYou can even sit in the shade under the elderberry on a hot summer day.

©2012 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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