Delicate, the elder is not. Given the right conditions, this rowdy, rambunctious, suckering shrub can tower over your doorway and eat your perennial bed for breakfast. Don’t plant it with the idea that you can work out a compromise. Instead, put it where you need a large, lanky sentry now and a grand, sprawling elderberry thicket in years to come. Golden elder (Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’) is a popular elderberry cultivar. The compound leaves are yellow to golden-green, and it carries clusters of fragrant white flowers in spring and red berrylike fruits in the fall. Just don’t underestimate this beauty.
Common name: Golden elder, American elder
Botanical name: Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’
Plant type: Deciduous shrub
Zones: 4 to 9
Height: 5 to 12 feet tall
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Rich and humusy
• Moisture: Average to moist
• Mulch: Mulch to help keep soil moist.
• Pruning: Cut suckers to the ground if you want to prevent golden elder from forming a thicket. Prune out dead branches in spring.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By cutting. (Since ‘Aurea’ is a cultivar, the seed may not come true.)
Pests and diseases
• Aphids, borers, and spider mites may be problems.
• Vulnerable to powdery mildew, canker, leaf spot, and dieback.
• The flowers of golden elder open in spring or early summer and the fruit ripens in late summer or fall. Ripe fruit is used to make jam, jelly, preserves, and wine.
• Elderberry shrubs attract birds and butterflies.
• You’ll get more fruit if you plant at least two different cultivars of elderberry. This allows for cross-pollination.
• Plan for the large size of mature golden elders when you’re deciding where to plant them. Also consider that the shrub will sucker, so give it room to form a thicket (if you want a hedge or natural screen, for instance), or use it as a lawn specimen, where you’ll keep the suckers in check every time you mow. Or prune out the suckers regularly.
• Be careful around elderberries. Contact with the leaves can irritate the skin, and eating any part of the plant except the ripe fruit can cause severe discomfort.
All in the family
• The genus Sambucus contains about 25 species, which are found throughout the world, from Asia to Africa to the Americas. The flowers of European elder (S. nigra) are used to make elderflower syrup and elderflower cordial.
Where to buy
• Nature Hills Nursery, Omaha, NE, 402-934-8116, www.naturehills.com
• Forestfarm, Williams, OR, 541-846-7269, www.forestfarm.com
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’ by Tracy Walsh.)