Why Is My Black Lace Wilting?

With a title like that, this could almost be a Victorian murder mystery or something.  But no, I am talking about one of my least favorite plants, sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace, ‘ or Black Lace elderberry.

I say least favorite because it is the plant that has reputedly had the most number of words ever written about it (and here I am adding to that).  But it was supposed to be the cold climate gardener’s answer to a prayer–if they couldn’t grow a japanese maple, they could grow ‘Black Lace.

I don’t have trouble with japanese maples but I sure am having trouble with ‘Black Lace!’  It was extraordinarily slow to start and slow to grow and lo and behold, just when I got it to a respectable height and it started flowering, I have this:

What appears to be happening is the stems are shriveling up and dying.  Here’s a close-up of this delightful phenomenon.

Research across the internet indicates that all elderberries are susceptible to verticilium wilt, but typically that would come later in the season, would result in the entire branch dying back, and would begin with a yellowing, not with this blackening.

I did note that the plant had aphids earlier in the season.  One of the reasons that aphids should be managed is that they can and do spread diseases of both the viral and bacterial kind.  I suspect that this is what has happened in this case, although I have not found any independent sources that confirm this.  No internet sources even indicate that aphids are a problem on these shrubs!

I will continue to watch the plant and to prune off the wilting parts if they become too severe.  I would hate to lose it for the wildlife value–the birds value the fruit.  Other than that, if it dies, I surely won’t mind at all.

{See post of June 17 for a follow-up–it turns out there are stem borers in these stems}

{Because this is by far my most popular post, I contacted Proven Winners to see what they recommended as a control for these borers.  They recommended giving the shrub a hard pruning, which they say it will take.  That’s fine if your shrub is mature.  Otherwise, I guess the control is still just to prune off the affected areas!  It is a lovely shrub for wildlife!}

12 thoughts on “Why Is My Black Lace Wilting?

  1. Kim Skilliter June 4, 2010 / 7:27 pm

    I have(had) a Black Lace Elderberry — this was it’s third year and I noticed the same thing as you described. I started to cut back the wilted areas and found the stems to be hollow — which is weird because it is new growth. I went a little further and discovered a worm ( yellow with black spots) inside the stem. Not good. I called our garden center and was told the only thing I could do as this was a ‘systemic’ problem was to cut back everything that was affected. The more I cut the more holes I found in the woody part of the tree.
    We actually dug it up today and destroyed it. I thought this may be helpful to you.

  2. gardendaze June 4, 2010 / 8:04 pm

    Thanks for that detailed comment. I’m away from home at the moment but you can be sure I will check for that stem borer as soon as I get back. And if I find them, I’ll do exactly as you did–rip it out!

  3. Janis Haywood June 13, 2013 / 3:32 pm

    My “Black Lace” has the same problem. I have just consulted the Wisconsin Extension Insect Diagnostic Specialist, who says the problem is the Elderberry Shoot Borer. I cut into the dying stems and found a worm, the borer in the larval stage. For help you may consult the pamphlet, “Growing Currants, Gooseberries, and Elderberries in Wisconsin” at http://learningstore.uwex.edu/assets/pdfs/A1960,PDF. The advice should work on elderberries anywhere and is free. See a couple of paragraphs on page 7 on “Elder Shoot Borer.” It sounds like good pruning should save the plant.

    • gardendaze June 13, 2013 / 5:12 pm

      Thanks so much for reading and for the link. I’m sure it will help lots of folks!

      You came upon the first of 4 of these posts with similar names. I have since found the little elder shoot borer & photo’d it for my readers, as well as the larval exit hole.

      I’ve also sought advice from the breeder, Proven Winners, about how to cope. They recommended exactly what your extension service did–a good hard pruning.

      Thanks again for reading & sharing.


  4. Pat Stephens July 12, 2013 / 4:47 pm

    Well, we are another problem with the stem borer on our black lace. Last year it started and our garden center said it looked like insect damage and to spray it. This year we were told to use something systemic (into the soil) and our tree still keeps looking like it is dying. My husband keeps cutting branches off; guess we should go ahead and cut it way down. If it comes back will it still have the same problem? I am tempted to just get rid of it completely. I really enjoyed it when it was in good condition.

    • gardendaze July 13, 2013 / 10:39 am

      Hi Pat,
      I think the problem with the systemic is that you got to it too late–which is usually what happens to me when I try to cut it back!

      What you can try this season is to just cut off the wilting tips to keep it looking decent. Then early next season–before you even have any new growth (this would generally be in MArch in Connecticut for me. I’m not sure what part of the country you’re in) you want to cut it back hard! The first time I did this I cut it back to within several inches of its life (or so it seemed (but I had no borers at all that year!)

      Each year since I haven’t had the heart to cut it nearly that hard–and you know what–each year since I’ve had the borers! So I’d say cut the thing back as far as you ca sa early as you can next year and see if that helps.

      I too would take mine out but its a great shrub for the birds.

      Good luck!


      • Pat Stephens July 13, 2013 / 11:05 am

        Thanks for your thoughts. Will try your suggestion.

  5. Janis Haywood July 13, 2013 / 2:42 pm

    This spring for the first time my black lace flower shoots were wilting. The Wisconsin hort. expert on insects said I have elderberry shoot borers. Sure enough, I found that each wilting shoot had a worm inside the stem. Per instructions i cut off all the wilting stems, which meant a major cutback, but now the plant is flourishing.

    However, our expert says the worm is just the larva, which crawls out of the stem and becomes a moth. Then in late summer the moth lays its eggs in the old canes I left at the base of the plant because the canes were hard to get at to cut down. My mistake. Now I have cut off the old canes at the base and hope to prevent any more moths from laying eggs there. I’ll let you know if this works.

    I don’t know whether an insecticide would work, but you have to deal with the larvae and then later with the eggs, which will hatch out the following spring and make new worms.

    Janis Haywood

  6. Deann Ohmie June 22, 2016 / 2:36 pm

    I just bought a beautiful black lace,and ya its wilting. I’m so sad because its a focal point, in my yard. I live in sandy Utah. Its very hot here and it gets very cold. Sounds like I should dig it up and try something else.

    • gardendaze June 22, 2016 / 2:56 pm

      Oh no, don’t dig it up and try over. Here’s what to do. For right now, prune out the wilting parts. Don’t put them in compost–they contain insects and I don’t know if the compost will get hot enough to kill the bugs.

      Next spring, if your Black Lace has some woody parts (it’s hard to know how mature a specimen you have), cut it back hard! It’s been getting very cold here in the winter too–at least minus 10 or colder every winter. The Black Lace takes that just fine. Unfortunately the borer in the stem survives too.

      So you want to prune back to at least below where you see those borers next spring. You can probably cut the shrub back by half. That should keep the borers away.

      I usually prune mine when I safely see new growth sprouting out. It’s at a different time every year. Some years it’s early March; other years it’s early May!

      But pruning should take care of the borer problem and then you can enjoy your shrub for many years to come.

      By the way, if you’re curious, cut the stem open. You just might find the little borer worm in there. Just dispose of it in the trash when you’re done. I love to see what’s making my shrubs wilt.


  7. allegra October 7, 2016 / 5:52 pm

    Could mulch be caring the bores and spreading the problem?

    • gardendaze October 7, 2016 / 6:22 pm

      Not in my garden. I don’t mulch. As a general rule, elderberry is just prone to borders in a way that iris might be or other plants might be prone to other insects.

      It’s good to know which plants are prone to what insects (mugo pine and saw fly larva or even roses and saw fly larva, for example) so that you can be alert to the problem and take corrective action.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.


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