Horticulture Magazine

Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’ Care & Growing Tips

Sambucus nigra white blossoms

Black Lace Overview

Official Plant NameSambucus Nigra
Common Name(s)Black Lace, Elder, Elderberry
Plant TypeShrub / Fruit
Native AreaEurope, North Africa, South-West Asia
Hardiness RatingH6
ToxicityEdible blossom and berries, rest of the plant slightly toxic if ingested
FoliageDeciduous, pinnate leaves
FlowersCream flowers followed by black berries
When To SowMarch, April, May, September, October, November
Flowering MonthsJune, July, August, September, October
When To PruneFebruary, March
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun / Partial Shade

Exposure
Exposed or Sheltered

Size

Height
4 – 8M

Spread
2.5 – 4M

Bloom Time
June – July

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

You’re probably more familiar with some of the plants in the sambucus nigra family – things like black elder, European elder, or elderberry.

This plant can be a bushy shrub or small tree, and puts forth tiny jet-black fruits each autumn. And although they’re poisonous when eaten raw, elderberries are fantastic for making wine!

Sambucus nigra leaves and blossoms
An intriguing twist on a common British autumn sight

Growing sambucus nigra ‘black lace’ in your garden guarantees a striking twist on the common elder. The dark leaf colour brings a whole new visual interest, and you can use the berries in the same way. The pink flowers (also used for winemaking, amongst other things) give way to dark berries, with the whole thing underpinned by dark purple, almost black leaves. Overall, a hugely attractive plant to incorporate into your garden.

What is Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’?

Elder grows naturally in the UK and North America, and is commonplace in hedgerows and other wild growth areas. Chances are you’ve seen it plenty of times, even if you didn’t recognise it.

Growing as either a shrub or a tree, elderberry is a great addition to any type of garden. The plant is perennial, meaning it will flower year after year. The black lace cultivar is one of many types, and will grow to a full height of about 1.5-2.5m.

While the other elderberry types are of interest for UK gardeners, this guide will focus on growing and caring for black lace, specifically.

How to grow Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’

Whether you want to grow black lace for its visual appeal, or to have a supply of winemaking ingredients available on demand, let us get you started.

This section covers everything you need to know about growing black lace in your garden

What you need to know

Sambucus nigra is a perennial that grows best in full sun exposure, with a south- or west-facing aspect. It works best in the middle or back of a border, thanks to its height. The plant is hardy, meaning it will easily survive whatever conditions a British winter throws at it, and it’s not fussy with soil composition.

When to plant

If you’re growing sambucus nigra from seed, you should look to plant them out directly into your garden in autumn, from September through to November. There’s no need to sprout these indoors, or to grow them in a nursery.

Just remember that growing from seed will give you a long wait for a mature plant!

Another option is to grow black lace from a cutting. A semi-ripe cutting taken from a mature plant will work, with higher odds of healthy growth if taken from a plant in early maturity. Cuttings from old plants will work as well, but the success rate might be a bit lower.

With a cutting, you want to take at least 10cm below a leaf node. Then you need to trim off the leaves so only 4-6 remain. Pop the cutting into some rooting compost, cover it with cling film or something similar, and give it a few days to take hold. Once you can see growth, they’re ready to plant out. Spring is the best time to do this, the earlier the better.

Where to plant it

This plant isn’t high-maintenance, and can thrive in loamy, sandy, clayey, or chalky soil. It likes full sun but will tolerate partial shade. In terms of aspect, it will be happy facing north, east, south, or west – again, not fussy.

Elderflower Sambucus berries in a garden
Such rich colours work with any garden palette

In terms of moisture levels, black lace likes well-drained soil with some moisture present.

Watering

You don’t want to over-water your black lace, but you don’t want it to get too dry, either. The best course of action is to water every 7-10 days if it’s not rained, until the soil is wet to about 7-8cm deep.

It’s important to make sure your black lace has the right amount of water, especially as it’s getting established. If the roots are dry for too long, they’ll suffer stress and pass on the damage to the rest of the plant.

Pruning

Sambucus nigra falls into the Royal Horticultural Society’s Pruning Group 1, meaning that little to no pruning is required to keep the plant healthy. In fact, some plants in this category can actually be damaged from too much pruning.

Black lace will tolerate light pruning to keep it close to your desired size and shape, however there’s no need to prune each season if you don’t want to.

Should you decide to prune, you’re looking to remove dead or wilting leaves, shoots that are heading in directions you don’t want them to, and any areas that look particularly busy. This will free up space and reduce competition for sunlight and nutrients, helping stronger future growth.

Prune in late autumn or early spring for the best results.

Also, some gardeners recommend pruning hard in spring every three years or so to encourage optimum growth.

Ready for the next season?

Keeping your sambucus nigra healthy shouldn’t be too demanding. This plant benefits from being fertilised before flowering and after fruiting – always water after fertilising to help move the nutrients down through the soil.

Winemaking

We’d be remiss not to briefly touch on the winemaking opportunities presented by elderflowers and elderberries. Both are favourites amongst homebrewers, and each is the base for a rich and delicious drink.

If you decide to go for elderflower wine, you can expect a light and floral drink that evokes airy summer evenings. You’ll need to trim the flowers from your sambucus nigra once it’s in full bloom, taking care not to include the stalks. Black lace flowers give a slightly pinker hue than straight elderflowers.

Elderberries,on the other hand, will give you a rich and hearty drink that’s just perfect for autumn and winter evenings when the daylight and temperature are dwindling. Collect as many berries as you can when they’re at their ripes – black and ready to burst.

There are plenty of winemaking tutorials online, and it’s fairly easy to get started. Some specialist equipment is required but it’s fairly cheap, and you can reuse it for years to come.

Glasses of elderberry wine on a wooden table
There’s nothing quite like the taste of a homemade tipple

You can also make cordials, liqueurs, jams, chutneys, crumbles, and all sorts with the fruits of a black lace, making this plant the gift that keeps on giving.

Pest control!

Sadly, sambucus nigra is prone to a few malicious visitors who want nothing more than to feast on its tasty leaves. Here’s what to look out for and, more importantly, how to get rid of them.

Blackfly

These aphids form sap-sucking colonies that can wreak havoc on black lace. You’ll be able to see them with the naked eye, and once present, it’s up to you whether to tolerate small populations or remove them.

At first you can just squish them with your fingers (wear gloves if you’re a bit grossed out by this), but bigger infestations require stronger measures.

You can opt to introduce predator insects to eat the aphids, although this can quickly escalate into a situation similar to the old lady that swallowed a fly (i.e., you may need to control their populations).

Alternatively, a variety of pesticides are available that will stop blackflies in their tracks.

Glasshouse spider mite

These pesky critters are smaller than blackfly, but enjoy harvesting sap just as much. You might struggle to see them with the naked eye, but you’ll definitely notice the mottled and wilting leaves.

You’re less likely to attract these mites with plants growing outside, but if you do notice an infestation, your options are similar to blackfly. You can either introduce predators or opt for some sort of pesticide to control their spread.

Verticillium wilt

This fungal infection enters your sambucus nigra through the roots, and eventually causes damage further up the plant. You might notice yellow, wilting leaves, or otherwise-unexplained branch dieback.

The fungus responsible spreads via soil, so take care not to cross-contaminate soil if you know another area to be infected. Once a plant is hit with verticillium wilt there are no chemical controls to remove it, so it’s important to be vigilant: prevention is the best cure.

Something of a dark horse

Whether you call it sambucus nigra or black lace, this plant is a fine addition to any garden. A cornerstone of British wildlife, with its flowers and berries being commonplace in food and drink for generations, you won’t regret getting acquainted.

We heartily recommend this plant. It’s got character, it’s easy to care for, and it’ll be a talking point for guests for years to come. Especially over a glass of something delicious that you brewed yourself!

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