Sambucus nigra (common elder) is a traditional British hedgerow shrub, bearing clusters of cream, scented spring flowers and purple autumn berries. A vigorous grower, it withstands hard pruning to keep it under control, or grows into a well-shaped mature shrub with only light cutting back. When pruning, pause about halfway through, step back and study the plant's overall shape before continuing, to help achieve a pleasing final effect. Prune elder in winter while the plant is dormant.
Pruning elder yearly from its first year onwards helps create a dense-leaved adult shrub. Cut about half the stems of one year old plants down to the ground, and prune the rest halfway down the stems. After that, old wood should be cut away at ground level and year-old wood should be pruned halfway down the stem every year. Elder fruits on the previous and current year's wood, so this pruning system reduces fruiting and self-seeding.
Elders grow healthily with very light pruning, removing only damaged, diseased, congested and crossing branches. Crossing and congested branches rub against one another, creating open wounds. Cutting out diseased branches helps prevent infection spreading to other areas of the tree, and removing damaged branches reduces the chances of disease developing. Remove these, and any other branches that spoil the shrub's overall shape, such overly long or badly-placed stems.
Elder is a vigorous shrub that grows back after all branches have been pruned down to the ground. As a large shrub that throws lots of shade, sometimes gardeners feel the need to control elder by cutting it down entirely and giving other plants space and light to grow. Use a pruning saw to cut through elder branches at ground level. Elder will regrow within three or four years into a large, well-branched shape with little attention.
Tolerant of most garden soils and positions except wet soil and full shade, elder is easy to grow. It thrives on moderately fertile or chalky, well-drained soil in full sun sites, where it produces the most fruit. Elder survives neglect, but young plants grow better if watered during long periods of dry weather. Remove dead flowers to prevent self-seeding. Elder grows easily from fruit eaten by birds during autumn and winter. Left unpruned, elder grows 4 to 8 m (13 to 26 feet) tall and 2.5 to 4 m (8 to 13 feet) wide.