Editor’s Note: Jay Cooper’s wife, Maggie, is this week’s Garden Spot contributor.
It’s always so much fun to discover what other people are creating with their landscape. From spring to fall Jay and I are sometimes viewed as the valley “landscape stalkers.”
We try to pass it off with the idea that we are looking for potential homes for the next Garden Tour and sometimes that’s true. But other times, we do it for the sheer pleasure.
We often just set out for another landscape adventure and end up wherever the car takes us. Sometimes, if we are really interested, we (code word for Jay) have been known to knock on a door or two and engage the homeowner in conversation.
If you are interested in landscaping your yard, but don’t really know where to start, try paying attention as you drive around our community. You will learn a lot and be inspired by the creative and hardworking gardeners of the Tooele Valley.
While attending the Garden Tour earlier this month, I fell in love. Not with a person but a plant — the Black Lace Elderberry. Either I had never seen one before or I just never noticed, but now that I have, this is a cultivar that I must add to my landscape. So, I decided to do some research before I buy.
Not only is the Black Lace Elderberry beautiful (in some ways it looks somewhat like a Japanese maple.), but it produces abundant blooms and berries. There’s a lot going for it.
I have discovered that there are many different types of elderberry plants and that their berries have a rich history. The medicinal use of the elderberry dates to the fifth century B.C. and is even found in the writings of Hippocrates.
Ancient Egyptians used it for burns, early Native American tribes used it in teas and the British made elderberry wine. The claims were it could cure the common cold and prolong your life.
Recent research shows that elder helps the immune system and directly inhibits the influenza virus. Elder contains an enzyme that “smooths” the spikes on the outside of the virus, which the virus uses to pierce through cell walls. Elderberries have also been recommended in cases of bronchitis, sore throat, coughs, asthma and colds.
Ripe elderberries can be used in pies, pancakes and muffins. Unripe berries can cause nausea when eaten. Some of the most popular uses for elderberries are wine-making, creating jam and jelly or just fresh eating.
But before you run out into your yard to grab elderberries off your plant to eat them, you need to know something very important. Red Elderberry stems, leaves, bark and roots are all toxic. Raw fruit off of Sambucus racemose, the red varieties, contains smaller amounts of toxins as well.
They can be used after being cooked. You will find a bit of differing opinions on this, depending on who you listen to. Many wild plant foragers don’t seem overly concerned about this issue, while there are stronger warnings from other sources. If you’d like to expand your knowledge on this, a couple of webpages to visit are plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf, or plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_sara2.pdf.
Apart from their fruiting characteristics, the whole elderberry family creates habitat, is a wildlife food sources, and helps in erosion control. They are hardy once established, and reproduce both by stem growth from shallow lateral roots, as well as seeds. Land management agencies make use of various types to improve wildlands and reduce riverbank erosion.
The plant is very desirable in residential settings and as ornamentals. These members of the honeysuckle family are easy to grow as shrubs or pruned into small 10-15’ trees. Elderberries start to bear after 2 to 3 years. Their blooms appear from early to mid-summer and the berries attract birds.
So, if you want the berries for yourself, use netting to protect your plants. Elderberries prefer moist, well-drained soil with a midrange pH but these adaptable plants can thrive in many types of soils — even amended clay. That’s great news for us here in Tooele with our heavy clay soil. Be sure to plant them in full to part sun, providing at least 6 hours of sunlight daily. The plants appreciate afternoon shade if that’s available. They do well in zones 4-7; as a reminder, we are zones 6 to 7.
When deciding where to plant, keep in mind that they can grow quite large so place them in a bed with lots of room. Add good organic material to the hole before planting and feed them with 10-10-10 fertilizer or compost each year in the spring.
Elderberries should be watered deeply and thoroughly the first year after planting because their roots tend to grow close to the soil’s surface. Control weeds around the plant by adding mulch to smother them, or pull them out by hand, so that they do not injure or disturb the elderberry’s shallow roots.
Elderberries don’t have a central trunk that all their branches grow off of like a tree. They sprout “canes” from the root mass under the ground like raspberries do. Each year, new canes will sprout and these new canes will develop lateral branches (branches that grow out sideways).
Second-year canes, with lateral branches, are usually the most fruitful. After three or four years, the old canes become less productive and can be pruned away. Do your pruning in the early spring. Cut out all but five or six vigorous, erect, one-year-old canes and one or two two-year-old canes. All these canes should be grouped within a two foot circle. At the same time trim six inches off tips of the laterals on the older canes.
Proper pruning will give you beautiful results. Keep in mind that some European varieties can die back to ground level when it freezes, but they will come back in the spring.
If you are more interested in the fruit than the beauty, plant at least two different elderberry varieties that are known to bear safe, edible berries. Besides the Black Lace, look for varieties such as ‘John’s,’ ‘Adams,’ ‘Nova’ or ‘York,’ which are all good producers. Remember, berries may take two to three years to appear and will be ready to harvest from August to September, depending on the cultivar you’re growing. After picking, refrigerate fruits until you’re ready to use them. Cook the blue and purple berries to bring out a sweeter flavor and remember, be cautious of red elderberries; they are toxic when raw.
A word about next week’s Master Gardener public presentation. The featured speaker will be Pat Jessie. Jessie is a long term Stansbury Park resident and Master Gardener that has become quite well known in the area for her stunning compact backyard garden.
Her yard has been featured many times over the years on the Garden Tour. Her yardscape features an astounding array of roses. If you want to know how to be a great rose gardener, or what varieties work really well in our area, attend this free one hour class on Wednesday, June 28, from 7-8 p.m. at the USU Extension Offices at 151 N. Main in Tooele.
Remember, if you see Jay and me stalking your yard, take it as a strong compliment. We are simply enjoying your yards.