Elders, Sambucus, have gone from infuriating me with their pigeon-pooped seeds popping up all over the garden –in a crack at the top of a stone wall, just out of reach, is a favourite spot - to being elite ornamental shrubs. British bred Sambucus nigra Black Lace (‘Eva’), with its reddish black, finely dissected foliage and its heads of pink flowers, must be the most popular new shrub introduction of the century.
I recently wrote a piece on developments in elders for the trade magazine Horticulture Week – subscription or free trial required – where I featured one of our top breeders, Ed Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers.
I’d grown his ‘Chocolate Marzipan’ which is a spectacular plant growing 2-3m in a year, with huge chocolate brown leaves and huge marzipan-scented flowerheads. Huge is the word - one of the most amazing plants I’ve ever grown. I also came across one of Ed’s videos from the nursery (which now I can’t find) where he says that one of his varieties, ‘Gate In Field’, “has flowerheads the size of a dustbin lid and will grow to 14ft”.
Well, naturally, I wanted to see a flowerhead and a dustbin lid compared! So here we have it (above).
“My original aims as a breeder of Sambucus,” Ed told me, “were to breed better foliage and form and length of flowering season.
“But I have learnt that getting a new product into the commercial market takes years and new products fail for stupid reasons like space on a Danish trolley (the cart that delivers plants to garden centres). Gardeners are being deprived by all the garden centres: it all goes back to delivery week, transport, and a lack of knowledge or any willingness to take a risk.
“I tried waking the industry up ten years ago but after five years gave up and switched to colour, scent, flavour and length of flowering season.
“Sambucus has well tested antivirus properties,” Ed continued, “sambucol is sold in pharmacies to help the body fight infection. But it’s made from just one of the 147 named varieties in my Plant Heritage National Collection. It’s long overdue for the pharmaceutical industry to do more plant trials but, thanks to Brexit, the work that was being carried out between me and a Swiss company ended prematurely. So if there’s a masters student wanting work with National Collection holders, we’re here and waiting.”
Ed then gave me a few details about more of his best of his varieties.
‘Milk Chocolate’ “My first introduction, it has milk chocolate foliage and cream flowers and, given good soil, will flower until November.”
‘Milk Chocolate Orange’ “Milk chocolate leaves but with contrasting orange stems grows to 2m with all flowers presented on the top.”
‘Chocolate Marzipan’ (below) “Grows to 3m has amazing two tone foliage: black on top and mint green underneath, with almond scented flowers in June, July and August.”
‘Black Cherries’ “The darkest yet, it has the highest level of anthocyanin colour in the flowers and adds a cherry-like hint to cordial.1.5m high and very slow to reproduce needs to go into tissue culture.”