A Striking Contrast

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

It’s hard to imagine a contrast that’s not striking. In fact, one definition of contrast  is, “One thing that is strikingly different from another.” I’ve been enjoying an example of this right in my backyard.

The elderberry bushes at the edge of the yard, although beautiful on their own, are enhanced by the dark backdrop of the forest edge. And though I’m content just to sit and enjoy the view from the porch, those dark shadows beneath the shrubs make the forest mysteriously inviting.




You could grow elderberry for the blossoms alone — it makes a fine ornamental shrub. Mother Nature has used it in her garden for years. Seeing it bloom along the roadsides on my drive to work, I realized that I hadn’t seen it at work — and that was mysterious.

Selma Steele made good use of shrubs in her landscape, so such an attractive (and native) shrub as elderberry is notable by its absence at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. I may never know the answer to this ‘absence of elderberry’ mystery, but I’ve got some ideas.

Perhaps Selma felt that by keeping wild and cultivated plants separate, she could create her own striking contrast. Her writings indicate that she was inspired by nature, and that observations of native flora had a strong influence on her garden design. Maybe she didn’t want to cross that line — from inspiration to imitation.

The woods surrounding The House of the Singing Winds contain nearly as many varieties of shrubs as Selma planted around her home — among them Spicebush, Serviceberry, Wild Hydrangea and the fascinating and flexible Leatherwood, found in the Selma Steele Nature Preserve. Selma may have chosen to add to, rather than compete with these species.

Charles Deam, Indiana’s first State Forester and contemporary of Selma Steele, writes of elderberry in Shrubs of Indiana (1932), “This native shrub is highly ornamental and its use has been neglected simply because it is so common and cheap.” Today, it is certainly abundant in Salt Creek Valley, below T.C. Steele State Historic Site, and likely was in Selma’s time as well. She may have felt no need to plant something so common.

I have a fondness for elderberry. It was one of the first fruits I used when learning how to make jam, and it was conveniently in my backyard — although a different backyard from the one I look out on today. I could never understand why people would squander elderberries making wine when the jam was so delicious. Even when my elderberry jam didn’t quite ‘jell’ it still made wonderful syrup.

I haven’t made any jam for years, but the summer season brings back my appreciation —if not the flavor of this great shrub. The edging of elderberries along the lawn won’t be spoiled if I take a few blooms to make elderberry blossom fritters — just another of its uses. Whether she planted it or not, I feel sure that Selma Steele was also aware of both its usefulness and beauty.

I appreciate connections. A synonym for contrast is foil. This word perfectly describes my backyard elderberry bushes. It is defined as, “One that by contrast enhances the distinctive characteristics of another.” It could also be the definition of Selma’s garden philosophy and relationship with nature — with or without elderberries.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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