Peter Dowdall harks back to the elderflowers of his childhood and recommends a colourful new variety.

It’s officially the trendiest herb in Ireland at the moment.

It seems everybody is either harvesting the flowers and berries, writing about it or enjoying the cordial, jelly or wine made from it.

I am of course talking about Sambucus nigra or Elder.

My mother was a great one for enjoying what nature provided and growing up, there was always something going on in our kitchen, either a big saucepan simmering with fruit and pectin on its way to becoming jam or marmalade, or muslin sacks filled with stewed apples dripping pure juice into jugs beneath.

Stripping the local elder trees of their blossoms as soon as they opened was another summer ritual, for their flowering period is short, and if you missed the window of opportunity then that was it, no elderflower cordial for a whole year.

I foolishly didn’t pay attention to the way my mother made cordial and have yet to taste any to match hers. 

I have never had a drink as refreshing as a small drop mixed with a glass of sparkling water after a long hot day working in the garden.

Promoted as an excellent detoxifier and treatment for respiratory problems as well as relieving hayfever and sinusitis symptoms, I drank it because I enjoyed it, oblivious then to the myriad health benefits it offered. 

The berries too are used in the kitchen, to make a wine or jam.

Traditionally referred to as Nature’s medicine chest, it seems nowadays, listening to all the experts and herbal fans, that life couldn’t continue as normal without its help. 

But let us not forget that the garden isn’t all about medicine and harvesting nature’s bounty.

No, the garden is a place to enjoy for its sheer beauty too, so let me introduce you to Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Black Beauty’, two recently developed cultivars of Elder and both quite stunning specimens in the garden

Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Eva’, to give its correct mouthful of a name, is more commonly known as Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ or purple-leaved Elder and will grow to about 2.5metres with a suckering habit and it can spread a few metres in all directions.

It brings this most magnificent, deep purple, nearly black (hence the name) colour to the garden, which, when used correctly can create a stunning focal point. 

However the term ‘used correctly’ is important as I am always a bit careful when using very dark colours in Irish gardens.

Bear in mind our climate can be very dark a lot of the time — grey skies and early evenings for a number of months during the year. 

A dark coloured shrub — and ‘Black Lace’ is very dark — can sometimes make the whole effect much more gloomy. So it’s important what you plant it with your Sambucus.

Go for something nice and bright. I have mine underplanted with some vibrant and fresh Phlox ‘White Flame’ and Chocolate Cosmos and the combination works beautifully, the white of the Phlox working to make the Sambucus look vibrant, not dark. 

The purple foliage softens the white of the Phlox and for me, the chocolate Cosmos works anywhere with its deep burgundy brown blooms and scent of Black Magic.

Outside of these I have planted some Cistus ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to ensure evergreen interest after the high drama of the summer flowers, and again the yellow and lime green foliage mixed with the white flowers contrast beautifully with the dark Elder leaves.

The purple foliage is complimented by pink, white flowers during June and July which of course, can be harvested to make a lovely-looking, pink-coloured version of the famous cordial. 

Another variety which has been developed relatively recently is ‘Black Beauty’. 

More red in colour than ‘Black Lace’, the foliage is less dissected, less finely cut, but it’s a particularly nice variety and one that I am sure will soon make its way into my patch somewhere.

All the Elders are hardy and will tolerate windy and exposed conditions which makes them an ideal plant to use if you yearn for a Japanese Maple but cannot because of a harsh environment. 

They can get woody and I like to cut them back hard each spring, similar to dogwoods, to make sure that I get lovely lush new foliage each spring.

The more sun the better —if they are growing on the shade they will strain to reach the suns and you will be left with long, lanky weak stems which wont have the rich red or purple colouring.


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