The fields around us are pale and yet to green up after the hay cut. The trees and hedges are fuller and darker than they ever will be – an August green that has lost its earlier vibrancy. Seeds are setting and hips forming in this final month of summer and there, already showing and earlier than I am ever ready to see them, are the Cyclamen hederifolium.
The garden in August can all too easily fall foul of the feeling that summer is ebbing away, but Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis ‘Maxima’ makes a sure and decisive move against the tide. Where our native elder is already a June memory and hung heavily now with berries, there is a vigour and freshness exuding from this north American which, true to its country of origin, is larger in all its parts. A gently suckering shrub, the growth is still fresh and lush with a push of herculean effort to summon the flowers. These are borne on this year’s wood, which is why, if you choose to do so, you can pollard the plant to encourage a response in growth that is larger flowered and altogether lusher.
It was such a plant that I first encountered at Greatham Mill in Hampshire. Frances Pumphrey, a fine plantswoman and gardener, opened her garden to the public and her cornucopia was meticulously tended. Where she had reached as far as she dared for fear of not being able to manage more, she had extended her garden into a little field alongside the stream where she had planted a modest arboretum. She had the Sambucus growing there and it billowed out from where it had been reduced in winter, the flower heads the size of bicycle wheels. I can see them now as clearly as if it were yesterday, tiered and light-reflectingly creamy amongst the shade of the trees. A scale changing spectacle.
From the age of 10 I had a Saturday gardening job there for the seven years before leaving home and I would willingly spend every penny of my wages in her nursery of treasures. Mrs P. would always give me something to offset the fact that I left with plants and not money. A good haul would not be negotiable on my bicycle and my father would have to come to collect me on days like the one I was given an offset of the Sambucus. Running gently, but not dangerously, it is easily propagated from a rooted sucker. On our thin, acidic sand at the top of the hill though, my plant never did as well as those in the heavy soil of Greatham Mill and, until recently, it remained a mythical memory from my teenage years.
‘Maxima’ is a most suitable name and you need enough space to stand back and look when it is in full sail. I have recently planted a small handful where I am adding tough perennials to the lush growth along the ditch. The likes of Inula magnifica, Persicaria alpina (formerly P. polymorpha) and Aralia cordata are proving themselves by coexisting alongside the native meadowsweet and rampaging equisetum in this heavy, damp ground. Mulched heavily for a couple of years to curb nearby growth in spring, the plants are able to build up the reserves they need to hold their own. The Sambucus have done this for the first time this year and, though they are not yet old enough to coppice, the flowers have youthful vigour and are easily the size of serving platters. If I were to leave them as shrubs, they would rise to three or so metres, but I will probably prune them hard, like buddleia, in late winter. A strong framework will allow the plants to hold their heads above the competition and the regrowth will stimulate the lushness I am after.
Though I have not yet committed the flowers to make cordial, I imagine a few would go a long way if we ever had a wet June and couldn’t harvest our native. They have the same delicious perfume and hang huge and lacy with the Gunnera as their backdrop under the willow. The drama here plunges you into a world that makes you feel smaller and smaller the deeper you venture into it. Stepping from the open field, where the dry tawniness of August grassland sets the tone, into the damp lushness beneath the willow, my ‘Maximas’ are easily as wondrous as the first time I made their acquaintance
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 10 August 2019