Gardening: The elders just got bettered

Ornamental elders may be popular, but they are a bit dull. Time to give the `Black Beauty' a ride.
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I wonder how much true affection we feel towards our native common elder, Sambucus nigra. This medium-sized shrub, with its flat cloudy heads of heavily scented, creamy-white flowers in May, its vinous-purple berries in September and its yellow leaves in October, is instantly recognisable, yet most gardeners give it a wide berth. I tolerate it only in the furthest, wildest reaches of the garden, as a concession to the shelter and food it gives to wild creatures, particularly a hen pheasant and her brood, and for the delicious cordial to be made from the flowers. In the garden, it seeds around far too freely for comfort, and those seedlings have tenacious roots, which requires strength to dislodge, and a horrible smell which lingers on the hands.

Somehow, this shrub never looks right even in a hedgerow, for the trunk is coarse, the growth unrestrained and inclined to undermine nearby plants, and it has leaves which colour and drop piecemeal through the autumn, giving it a thin, careless look when compared with neat field maples and dense hawthorns.

For many years, however, we gardeners seem to have had a distinct weakness for planting its garden varieties, those selections with yellow, purple, variegated or deeply cut (`laciniate') leaves, for they offer other virtues besides simple amenability. (The common elder grows almost anywhere, in sun or semi-shade, in clay or chalk, and is easy to propagate, rooting easily from semi-ripe cuttings at this time of year.) None is quite so vigorous as the ordinary native, and, if pruned every winter, they can be kept within bounds, and are suitable for gardens where there is not much space for deciduous shrubs.

Some are better than others, in my opinion. I have no very great love, for a form called `Pulverulenta' which has green leaves so mottled and striped with white that it looks quite ill, and is certainly not a good "doer". Better as a garden plant is Sambucus nigra `Aurea', provided it is planted in dappled shade, so that the golden-yellow leaves are not burned to a crisp by high summer sun. Another quite readily available is the form called laciniata, which has the normal green leaves, but so finely cut they look like parsley, and give a delicacy to the shrub quite lacking in the ordinary one. Also quite widely grown is `Marginata' which has a pretty, irregular creamy-white edge to the leaves.

The best, if availability and popularity are reliable guides, is the brownish-purple leaved `Guincho Purple', which you may also find sold under the name `Purpurea'. This starts off like the native elder, with green leaves in spring, but they soon take on deeper, darker tones. As autumn wears on, these turn to red before they fall. Provided it is not too ruthlessly pruned, this shrub has pretty pink-tinged white flowers on purple stalks, in May. It is a very useful ingredient to a strong, lively colour scheme, where purple, yellow and orange predominate. It is however, quite unsuitable for boundary hedges or anywhere else bordering on to countryside, for it draws the eye ineluctably, almost as much as a copper beech or purple-leaved ornamental cherry will.

Fans of this plant will be very pleased to know that a cross between `Guincho Purple' and `Fastigiata' has been recently bred and, since August, has been available in garden centres. It is called `Black Beauty' and its raisers have high hopes for it as a shrub for private and public plantings. It is the first ornamental shrub to come from a specially targeted breeding programme at the horticultural research establishment, HRI East Malling in Kent, which was funded by the nursery stock industry, via the Horticultural Development Council, and by MAFF.

Its noteworthy characteristics are that it has darker, more intensely purple foliage than any other, the foliage colour develops very quickly in the spring and is retained until the leaves fall, the flowers are properly pink, and with a lemon fragrance, and it has purple-black berries. It is a shrub which will apparently grow up to 10 feet in eight years, if left unpruned, but I am sure it can be kept smaller and fresher by cutting back one-year-old growths by half, and older stems almost to ground level in the dormant season, then feeding and mulching the plant well. I intend to grow it close to `Guincho Purple' to compare the two, for I think it possible that its unchanging purpleness will eventually grate on me. Only time will tell whether it will be a fine addition to gardens, but I hope so.