The elder is one of our favourite trees. We know where they grow in the local fields and regularly plunder them in late spring for their fragrant flowers and in autumn for their tart berries. As winter approaches, fallen elder branches (and trees in ill health) can often be found covered in the unusual looking ‘jelly ear’, an edible fungus that is popular in Chinese cuisine.
Elders are quite good at popping up uninvited, and we’ve regularly found small elder trees lurking in corners of our gardens and allotment. It can be tempting to allow these hedgerow escapees to grow unchecked and enjoy the sight of their soft white flowers and deep red jewels among your garden plants. But be warned – elders can get very big very quickly, dominating a portion of your garden and, once established, it can take a lot of effort to dig out the roots (as we have found to our cost).
Thankfully for elder fans there are numerous elder varieties especially suited for gardens of all sizes, with most of them growing to much more manageable heights than the common wild trees. Look after them properly and you can keep them under control and enjoy their splendour year after year.
Growing Elder Trees
One of the reasons the elder grows so freely wherever it fancies is that it is tolerant to most soil conditions, making it a useful plant for all gardeners. It can cope with both sun and shady conditions, and can even be grown in plant pots, but it does need plenty of water – especially important if you’re confining it to a garden container.
Winter and early spring are the best times to plant elder trees, which are usually sold as bare root plants. You can often buy very small elders for a fraction of the cost of more established plants, but seeing as they grow so quickly they’ll be up to a decent size within a few years.
To give your new elder the best possible start, dig a hole at least twice the size of the roots and fill with manure before planting and watering well. Once they reach a size you’re happy with then give them a pruning in winter or spring to maintain their shape and remove any damaged branches, or cut them back hard to encourage bushier, more vigorous growth.
Our Favourite Elder Varieties
This is the elder variety we have plumped for. It has very attractive dark, almost black leaves, while the flowers have a pink tinge to them. A great centerpiece for the border.
This variety has fine leaves which, when they catch the sunshine, glow with yellow and lime green colours. Grows upright and can reach a height of three metres.
A bushy elder plant that has similarly coloured foliage, flowers and berries to its wilder cousin, but is much better behaved.
Will you be planting an elder tree in your garden next year? Do you already have an elder tree in your garden? Let us know your favourite elder variety in the comments.