Easy Elderberries

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Elderberries: Ways to Clone Thicket Plants One of the most frustrating experiences I ever had in propagation came thanks to an overgrown elderberry. Now, thanks to a recent inquiry from a reader, that awful year came back vividly. I was as green as the wood I was trying to root and we waged a battle of wits as I was determined to clone this particularly perfect plant. It was a healthy clump of tightly held stems that formed a better looking vase shape than others I had seen on the same property. Even better, its berries were bigger and a shade darker than the others. I prized them for dye, but my friends were more interested in the wine they made. I was quite mobile in those years and made it a point to take a cutting or collect seed from plants that I might not encounter again. That spring I made a handful of cuttings from the beloved elderberry; they all died in a week. That fall I harvested some seed even though I knew they were unlikely to bear the same unusual fruit. I took cuttings again at that time, too, and got nothing. All these ways to propagate elderberry and other thicket plants and I couldn’t get any of them to work. Admittedly, my best asset was curiosity so I soldiered on, trying to dig up shoots under the mother plant and trenching stems to root layers. Of course I tried those two ways at the wrong time of year. Finally, with Thanksgiving passed and the moving van on the way, I clipped some hard wood stems. Shoved into a bag of damp sand, they rode with me and by the time I looked at them six months later, some had survived. Here’s what I should have done to take advantage of the many ways you can clone thicket plants like elderberry. One of my many mistakes was to choose elderberry stems (also called canes) that were too old or too young to root readily. When elderberry grows in cultivation, you are advised to maintain 1, 2, and 3 year old canes and the 2 and 3 year old canes root well. Elderberry clumps in the wild can have older and younger growth crammed together in the thicket. To clone from the wild, focus on stems that are very green in spring, those that are sturdy but thinner than the older canes at the center of the clump. Elderberry and other thickets are easy to layer in spring when the stems are flexible. Choose ones that are about as big around as your little finger and located on the edges of the thicket. Guide each one into a shallow trench in the ground around the mother plant. Use a knife to wound each cane in the trench by slipping off a bit of bark in several places. Dust the wounds with Hormex #1, bury the stem and cover it with soil. Add a brick or board to keep the clone from heaving up before it is rooted. Be sure a few inches of leafy stem emerges from the far side of the trench to become the top growth of the new plant that you will cut away from its mother in the fall. You can also dig up young sprouts around the base of a thicket in spring but it is best to treat them like cuttings. Many of the green sprouts are hard to transplant directly to a new location at this stage so pot them up in garden soil. Drench each pot with Hormex Liquid Concentrate mixed 2t/gallon and grow on through the summer in bright shade. By fall the youngsters will be ready to plant in the garden. It turns out that a bit later in the spring is better for taking tip cuttings at the semi hard wood stage. Dip the base of the 4-6 inch cuttings in Hormex #3 or dip in HLC for a few minutes and then stick into a well-drained rooting medium. Most thicket plants, including elderberry, definitely need a covered rooter to contain humidity around the stem without overwatering the soil. Intermittent mist is not considered necessary but if you live in a very dry climate it couldn’t hurt to use it in summer. I met a guy whose elderberry hedge went on and on, 3 different varieties in all their glory. The second half of the long row came from the first half as root cuttings and they were perfect clones. He said he learned the practice in rehabbing old thickets and liked how it worked out. Best done in late spring or early summer in this case and a simple matter of digging up thumb size root ‘elbows’, the points where they branch underground. He said he just buried them, but I’m sure there’s more to it. Hard wood cuttings were my elderberry salvation. As I wrote the nice lady who started this topic, “Once the weather has cooled enough to knock off the leaves, take a dozen cuttings. Make tip cuttings that are a foot long with a slanted cut at the lower end to expand its surface area as much as possible and so provide more room for roots. Cut 3-4 inches off the tips with a straight slice so you do not confuse the top with the bottom. The result will be a cutting with many nodes, the growing points where leaves emerge and roots can be stimulated. If the wood is very hard, slice the bark off of the bottom inch and in any case, roll the bottom inch of each cutting in rooting hormone such as Hormex #3. Put a rubber band around the bundle of cuttings and sink it into a trench or deep pot of damp sand. Leave one inch of stem and one or two nodes above the sand. Your job is to keep the cuttings slightly damp, exposed to cold but not freezing weather if they are not in a trench, and otherwise leave them alone until spring. Then you will dig them up and rejoice in the ones that have begun to callus over and perhaps root. Pot them up individually or plant them 4 inches apart in a little nursery made garden soil. By next fall, they will be ready to plant in the garden.” My second grade school picture shows a smiling child with ruddy cheeks and a twinkle in her eye. The twinkle was real, but the color in my normally pale skin came from elderberry. Our gang needed face paint for a game in the woods by our homes and there is no better purple for stripes than elderberry. Long-lasting, too, and precisely why the berries make such great fabric dye.

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