- Broadleaf deciduous large shrub or small tree to 30 ft (10 m), bark deeply furrowed. Leaves pinnately compound, 3-7 leaflets, usually 5, each short stalked, elliptic to elliptic-ovate, 4-12 cm long, acute, margin sharply serrate, dark green above and sparingly hairy on veins below, has a disagreeable odor when bruised. Flowers yellowish-white, muskily scented, in flat clusters, 12-20 cm across. Fruit lustrous purple-black, 6-8 mm across.
- Sun and part shade. Easily grown, sometimes considered a weed. Can prune to control size. Much folklore is associated with this plant, e.g., "if a baby is laid in a cradle of elderwood it will pine"(Coats, 1992).
- Hardy to USDA Zone 4 or 5 (depends upon the selection) Native to Europe, north Africa and western Asia; cultivated since ancient times. In Europe, an elderflower cordial is a popular homemade drink.
Taxonomy: Richard Bolli published a monograph in 1994 titled, "Revision of the Genus Sambucus", in it he proposed the placement of 5 species of elderberry as subspecies of Sambucus nigra, including S. caerulea, Blue Elderberry, to S. nigra ssp. cerulea (note spelling) and S. canadensis, American Elderberry, to S. nigra ssp. canadensis. The Common or European Elderberry is S. nigra ssp. nigra or simply S. nigra. This change has been accepted by the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), but certainly not all taxonomists, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4859216/ .
Some of the available selections include:
- ‘Aureomarginata’ - to 8 ft (2.4 m), green leaves with irregular bright to creamy yellow margins; typical white flowers and black fruit.
- Black Beauty™ - (syn. ‘Gerda’) leaves are a very dark purple-red, veins and stems are purple, flowers have an intense pink color; upright, dense shrub, slightly spreading, 10 ft (3 m) in height and spread if left un-pruned. From the Horticulture Research International, East Malling, England; Plant Patent 12,305, 12/25/01.
- Black Lace™ - (syn. ‘Eva’) leaves finely cut (laciniate), dark purple almost black, flowers medium pink, compact to about 6-8 ft (1.8-2.4 m) tall and wide. From the Horticulture Research International, East Malling, England; Plant Patent 15,575, 2/22/05.
- ‘Guincho Purple’ (‘Purpurea’) - to 8 ft (2.4 m), leaves emerge purple in spring but fade to green in summer before turning attractive shades of purple and red in fall, flowers white but may be flushed with red. May be more than one selection sold under this name and/or the its foliage color is very sensitive to the environment, for example, some say that leaves emerge green (or purple green) and then turn purple, whereas other describe it as having purple leaves that turn green in summer.
‘Laciniata’ - [Fern-leaved Elderberry], leaves finely cut, green, fern-like, typical white flowers and black fruit. Note S. nigra var. laciniata is not accepted by the ITIS. Apparently it should be S. nigra ssp. nigra 'Laciniata' or simply S. nigra 'Laciniata', this plant is considered a cultivar.)
- Note: 'Laciniata' vs. 'Acutiloba' Some of the earlier European horticultural sources (e.g., Rehder, 1940; Krüssmann, 1978) designated the cut-leaved selection of Sambucus nigra subsp. nigra (European Elderberry or Elder) as ‘Laciniata’. ‘Acutiloba’, also a cut-leaved selection, was more commonly associated with Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis (American Elderberry or Elder). Then in time ‘Laciniate’ and ‘Acutiloba’ seemed to have morphed into synonyms, but not always (e.g., Internat. Dendrology Soc., Trees and Shrubs Online). The two subspecies, nigra and canadensis, are "closely related and are so similar in morphology that specimens cannot always be unambiguously identified, which argues against recognition at the species level" (Applequist, 2015), this may have contributed to the conclusion that the two cultivars are essentially the same plant.
- ‘Madonna’ - leaves variegated, having bright yellow-golden margins which become creamy white in summer. Reportedly slower growing than other green selections but may reach 8 ft (2.4 m) high.
- ‘Purpurea’ - leaves are green but become dark purple, turning red in the fall. Flowers white flushed with pink. This selection may be the same as ‘Guincho Purple’ (see above), for Dirr (1998, p. 930) states that "according to Nelson, The Plantsman 8(3):189-190 (1986), the original cultivar names 'Follis Purpureis' and 'Purpurea' are no longer valid and the name 'Guincho Purple' is proposed". The Hiller Manual of Trees and Shurbs (1998) lists 'Follis Purpureis' and 'Purpurea' as equivalent to 'Guincho Purple'.
- nigra: black, the fruit.