Grow these large, airy shrubs for their white spring flowers and colorful summer berries. In big gardens, they make effective summer screens or windbreaks. To keep shrubby types dense, prune hard in dormant season, removing older stems and heading back last year's growth to a few inches. Overgrown plants can be cut to the ground. Types that grow into trees need early training to single or multiple trunks.
The various elder species have bright to dark green leaves and near-black, blue, or red berries. Fruit of red-berried species and of S. nigra caerulea can cause gastric upset if consumed in large quantities. (Red-fruited forms of black- and blue-berried species are not poisonous.)
S. canadensis (S. nigra canadensis). AMERICAN ELDERBERRY. Shrub. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to central and eastern North America. Spreading, suckering shrub to 12 ft. tall and wide. Almost tropical-looking light green leaves, each with seven 2- to 6-in.-long leaflets. Blooms in early summer, bearing flat, creamy white flower clusters to 10 in. wide; these are followed by tasty purple-black berries. The ripe fruit is good in pies, jams, jellies; both flowers and fruit are used for wine. Strictly fruiting selections include 'Adams', 'Johns', the larger-fruited (and later) 'York', and many more; plant any two for cross-pollination. 'Aurea' has golden green foliage (golden in full sun) and red berries.
S. nigra. BLACK ELDER, EUROPEAN ELDER. Shrub or tree. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. Native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Shrubby, upright growth to 2030 ft. tall and wide. Each leaf is up to 10 in. long and divided into many oval, pointed leaflets. Scented white flowers come in flat-topped, 5- to 8-in.-wide clusters in late spring or early summer. Purple-black berries are less than 12 in. across; for maximum fruit production, plant two different selections. 'Aurea', 1020 ft. tall and broad, has yellow new growth maturing to yellow-green. Selections such as 'Black Beauty' and 'Black Lace' have foliage that emerges blackish-purple, but then fades to purple-green in hot weather.
Several selections grow 68 ft. tall and wide: 'Aureomarginata', green leaves edged in yellow; 'Laciniata', very finely cut green foliage; and white-fruited 'Marginata' ('Albovariegata', 'Variegata'), green leaves bordered in creamy white.
Two smaller selections (45 ft. tall and wide) are 'Madonna', bearing green leaves that are variegated in light green to chartreuse when young and in cream, yellow, or gray-green when mature; and 'Pulverulenta', with leaves that unfold white, then mature to green splashed and striped with white.