Summer becomes official the moment the elderberries bloom, raising their luxuriously lacy, cream-colored flower clusters on tall stems at the back of a flowerbed or along a fence line. You can’t miss them. The flowers come into bloom in waves, and they can last for several weeks.
Elderberries are easy to grow and their fruit is under-appreciated. Wild elderberries flourish in sunny and partly shady spots on woodland margins and on roadsides. They are prized for their dark purple berries in late summer.
In a garden, elderberries are tall plants, growing up to about 10 feet. They are leafy and exuberant — classic choices for an informal, mixed shrub border. Rosalind Creasy, in Edible Landscaping, recommends growing elderberries with lilacs, weigela, and other deciduous shrubs. They’re a perfect plant for a wildlife border designed to provide food and shelter for birds: elderberries produce a healthy crop, so even if the birds take their share, you’ll still be able to harvest plenty of fruit for jams, jellies, and elderberry pie.
Growing more than one kind of elderberry will increase yield dramatically. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are both very prolific, and produce even better when planted together. ‘Adams’ is a well-known cultivar, introduced in the 1920s; ‘York’ is a more recent introduction grown for its extra-large berries that ripen late in the season. Berries are produced on both the current season’s growth and on old canes, so the harvest can be expected to increase every year as plants produce new shoots.
Flower arrangers love elderberry blooms for their graceful character; like baby’s breath, they add lightness and texture to a bouquet of roses. The flowers also look stunning in a tall vase all by themselves. Picking a few flowers cuts down on the berry harvest, of course, but the blooms left behind will turn into enough shiny, ripe black elderberries to preserve the taste and memories of summer until next year.