Dark, purple foliage draws me in to a garden, especially when it creates moments of stillness to punctuate an otherwise green border, so Sambucus nigra is one of my favourite shrubs, with its filigree lace leaves and deep luscious colour. The name Sambucus is derived from the Latin ‘sambuca’ which was the name of an ancient instrument made out of elder – often described as a small triangular harp of shrill tone, although it was also used to make pipes or flutes. Elder tubes (the wood with the pith removed) were also used as bellows to blow air into the centre of fires and this gave the elder its common name with ‘aeld’ deriving from the Saxon for ‘fire’.
So the genus makes reference to the plant’s heritage providing wood for music and fire-lighting, whilst the species ‘nigra’ makes reference to the black colour of the foliage and berries. However, the form (a subdivision in plants that suggests a plant having a minor variation to the species, such as leaf colour, flower colour or fruit) is ‘porphyrophylla’ from the Greek ‘porphyra’ meaning ‘purple’ and ‘phylla’ meaning ‘leaf’. So the plant is defined by having both purple and black characteristics in the species name and form.
Finally ‘Eva’ is the cultivar name (the plant is also often referred to as ‘Black Lace’). Both ‘Eva’ and the closely related ‘Gerda’ or ‘Black Beauty’ which has pinker, more highly scented flowers, arose from experiments carried out into gene flow by an East Malling researcher, Ken Tobutt, in the mid 1990s. The two cultivars were introduced in 2000 and were awarded AGM (Award of Garden Merit – the RHS seal of approval indicating that they perform reliably in gardens). Both ‘Eva’ and ‘Gerda’ offer the darkest Sambucus foliage which doesn’t fade, unlike other previously popular cultivars. I can’t find any information about the choice of names – maybe these Nordic names have a significance related to the origin of the plant, or maybe they were simply named after Ken Tobutt’s cats. If you know more than I do about the relevance of the cultivar names, I’d be fascinated to hear from you…
Sambucus nigra f. porphylophylla ‘Eva’ has one final gift to offer in addition to its attractive foliage and airy flowerheads (which can be used to make delicious pink elderflower champagne, wine or cordial), namely, its berries. They are loved by birds – so if you are creating a wildlife-friendly garden or border and want a shrub which will perform well, create impact and bring in pollinators and birds throughout the summer and autumn, then ‘Eva’ is a good choice. It grows rapidly, but can be cut back hard to restrict its growth and it will reward you with years of beautiful foliage at the back of the border.