Elder trees have a long association with gardens. They grow quickly with a rippled corky bark and form small to medium-sized trees. In Europe, where they are often considered a weed, elder trees are found in woodland margins and along hedgerows, they are a common sight here in North Otago and Canterbury where birds have spread their seeds after dining on ripe berries. They can be grown countrywide but will prefer areas that have cold winters. Elder trees offer two main attractions, one being the clusters of almost black berries that ripen in late summer and the other being the heavily fragrant umbels of white flowers that precede them in spring. Elder trees are frost tolerant, their leaves fall in autumn and leave trees are bare until early spring when new shoots burst from stems. Flowers and ripe berries can be made into wines, champagne, cordials, teas puddings, jellies and jams.
Companions Garlic, comfrey, borage, dill, chives, nasturtium
Quantity 1 tree per household
I have been making this for forty years and the recipe has been shared with many friends.
The most common variety is European elder ‘Sambucus nigra’.
Container grown elder trees can be planted at any time of year.
Elder trees like a sunny spot with some protection from harsh midday sun that can burn their delicate leaves. They grow well in partial shade. Trees can grow as tall as a two storey house but size can easily be regulated by cutting them back (see pruning).
Elder trees are not particularly fussy. They will grow on most soils but prefer it if soil holds a little moisture and contains some organic material. They naturally grow in places with a lot of leaf litter on the ground so this can easily be replicated with mulch.
Soak container grown elder before planting.
Prepare the ground. Dig through the planting area to about a spade’s depth and remove all weeds. Add well rotted manure and leaf mold or compost to soil and mix well. Make a hole about 20% larger than the size of the container the plant comes in. Remove the plant from its container. Stand the root ball in the hole and adjust soil beneath it so that soil level is the same as ground level around it. Back fill with the soil/compost mix and firm with downward hand-pressure as you go. Water well.
Water around the base of your young trees in dry periods, making sure that soil gets enough water for roots to be fully soaked. Mulch around base of newly-planted trees, especially if you have sandy soil. Cover a circle as wide as the spread of the branches with a finger-deep layer of compost, rotted manure or old straw and replenish mulch when necessary. Make sure the mulching layer doesn’t touch the stem of your tree as this can cause it to rot. This should be done for the first three years after planting,
Feed: Elder trees don’t need too much in the way of feeding and may produce heaps of soft weak growth if they are over-fed. Keeping the ground beneath your trees weed-free and well-mulched when its dry should help to reduce the amount of feeding that is required. Trees can be fed with a sprinkling of blood and bone meal around the outer edge of their drip line (widest edge of outer branches) in early spring. Scatter untreated wood ash on the ground beneath them in spring to boost flower and fruit production.
Flowers are produced in early summer. To make cordial or champagne they are best picked on a dry sunny day. Take flowers from several trees if you can so that berries can still be plentiful. Flowers can be cut in their crowded umbels and then removed from the stems with a fork – just pull the tiny blooms away and the stems will be mostly left behind. The berries ripen in late summer. They are bitter unless fully ripe and even then they have a perky tartness to them. Snip bunches of berries with scissors or secateurs. Use a fork to pull the berries from the stems.
Storage: Elder berries can be frozen in bags. Place un washed berries on trays or plates and freeze. Store them in bags or old ice cream tubs. The berries will collapse on defrosting so best used for cooking, making cordial or preserving.
Elders are not the tidiest tress and stems can soar at odd angles, they can be pruned to maintain a good framework of healthy branches. Cutting back old stems can help to stimulate fresh growth of fast growing new shoots and foliage but it will interrupt flowering and therefore subsequent fruiting – perhaps for a season. For maximum produce, just prune lightly – removing any damaged, diseased and dead wood. When you remove branches or stems that are growing from the base of the tree they should be cut right back to the point where they start growing. Trees will shoot vigorously from the point where they were cut and if this is too far up a branch then you may end up with a lot of new growth at a point where it makes the tree top heavy and weak. If a tree is particularly unruly, badly damaged or has become unproductive then you can cut the whole thing back to a stump. It will re-grow even from such drastic pruning.
Given the right growing conditions elder should be problem free. They do sometimes have problems with aphids that crowd their soft new growing tips. Spray aphids with Neem oil, garlic or tomato leaf spray. On a large tree this may be impractical, best thing to do is encourage predatory insects like hoverflies, ladybugs and lacewings into your garden with companion flowers.