Sambucus mexicana, the Mexican elder, is a beautiful, small tree that has a place in Southwest landscapes. Sambucus mexicana is valued for its artsy trunk and showy floral display as one specimen will bear hundreds of inflorescences, giving a creamy cast to the light green foliage.
The inflorescence of Sambucus mexicana is botanically called a panicle, a single blossom that produces a large cluster of small florets. Inflorescences open over a progression of several months, providing for pollinators a continual source of fresh flowers from late spring into the summer. When blossoms first open, petals of the florets are a buttery yellow that gradually turn to a paler creamy white. Blossoms are fragrant with prominent anthers that remain a creamy yellow. The day this photo was taken syrphid flies were happily buzzing around gathering pollen from the fragrant blossoms.
Blossoms are followed by clusters of small blue-black edible berries. Birds are quick to scavenge the berries, so humans wanting to harvest the sweet, delicious berries need to be quick. Birds that are attracted to the berries include blue jays, robins, doves, and cardinals.
Sambucus can be trained into a low, spreading tree or it can be kept as a large shrub when maintained without pruning. It is most attractive when trained to as a multi-leader small tree. The wood is weak, and branches can be broken with strong winds. However, it quickly recovers and sends up new shoots that can pruned into attractive shapes.
The trunk of Sambucus mexicana sets this tree apart from other landscape specimens. Juvenile bark is smooth, changing texture as it ages to form bark that gradually becomes corky, thick, furrowed, gnarled and twisted. Pruning lower limbs opens up the trunk and gives a good viewing of the attractive, artsy trunk.
Mexican elder is adapted to USDA zones 6 through 10, the region from western Texas to southern California and Mexico. Trees are drought tolerant once established.
Sambucus is classified as a semi-evergreen, in between evergreen and deciduous, shedding foliage with freezes but quickly rejuvenating shoots when temperatures moderate. They are susceptible to temperatures below 0°F where the entire top growth can be killed back; the good news is roots and crown are hardy to low temperatures and new growth will come from the base of the trunk, giving an opportunity to reshape the trunks. Gardeners that enjoy pruning will like having a Mexican elder in their landscape.
Sambucus mexicana is an uncommon specimen but is worth the search. An internet search found these: Las Pilitas Nursery, 3232 Las Pilitas Road, Santa Margarita, CA 93453, laspilitas.com; Sierra Vista Growers, 2800 Highway 28, Anthony, NM 88021, sierravistagrowers.net, 575-874-2415, firstname.lastname@example.org; Guzman’s Greenhouse, 270 Avenida de Mesilla, Las Cruces, NM 88005, 575-521-0496 for availability and pricing, guzmansgreenhouse.com
Ellen Peffley taught horticulture at the college level for 28 years, 25 of those at Texas Tech, during which time she developed two onion varieties. She is now the sole proprietor of From the Garden, a market garden farmette. You can email her at email@example.com