Scientific Name: Sambucus Canadensis
Common Name(s): Elderberry, American Elderberry, Common Elderberry, Canada Elderberry
Figure 1: Photos of Elderberry shrub, bark, and leaves. Photos by Kayla Sayre, Bella Vista POA Fisheries & Water Quality Sr. Technician
Figure 1: Photo of Elderberry flower from the side to show the umbrella-like shape. Photos of the progression of Elderberry flower into berry. Photos by Kayla Sayre, Bella Vista POA Fisheries & Water Quality Sr. Technician. Mature Elderberry photo by ©H. Zell
Elderberry is a native shrub in the family Adoxaceae and genus Sambucus. Elderberry is a large shrub that can reach heights up to 20 feet and can span an area of 6 feet or more. It has many stems that arise from the base with a very soft pith (inside anatomy of stem). The bark is gray with light gray patches on older stems. The leaves have toothed margins and are pinnate (oblong with a pointed tip) in shape. Elderberry has compound or grouped leaves of 3-5 in an opposite arrangement in groups (Figure 1). It produces flower clusters in June and July. These fragrant small white flowers all originate from a single stem and branch into individual flowers. The small flowers form an umbrella shaped mass of white flowers called a corymb. The individual white flowers are radially symmetric (symmetry like a starfish) and are less than half an inch in diameter (5-6 mm) and have 5 small petals. The berries are first green with red stems and mature into blackish-purple berries in August to September. The berries are small, about one quarter inch in diameter (Figure 2).
Elderberry is native to most of North America except for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. It is also native to some parts of Canada.
The elderberry’s stems have a soft white pith that is easily hollowed out which is the source for the etymology of both the common and scientific name. The name elder is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “aeld,” which means to kindle or fire since they were used to blow on kindling from a distance. Similarly, the genus name is Sambucus which originates from the Greek “sambuce,” an ancient flute-like instrument since the stems can be fashioned into whistles.
Elderberry is a large deciduous shrub that produces suckers which are sprouts that originate from the roots. Elderberry is naturally found in edge habitats, meaning it is common on forest edges, streamside habitat, lakeside habitat, and pond habitat. Elderberry will does well in full sun to part shade with soil that is moist, fertile, and well drained. It will persist during dry periods once it has established its roots. Since elderberry produces suckers it can be used to protect habitat that is in danger of erosion such as lakesides, streambanks, or eroding hillsides.
All parts of the elderberry can be toxic in large quantities because they contain cyanogenic glycosides which are also present in apple seeds (e.g., cyanide). If the berries are boiled, they are safe to ingest. Today, people commonly use elderberries to make jams, syrup, pies, and crumbles. Elderberry berries are known to have high amounts of vitamin A and C, potassium, folate, calcium, and iron. The berries are made into tinctures and supplements and are readily available today and sold as immunity boosting supplements. Historically, elderberry was used by American indigenous peoples as far as 1200 to 1000 BCE. The Iroquois tribes would boil the inner bark and use it as a pain reliever for toothaches. The soft inner pith was used as a salve for cuts, abrasions, and burns. The flower was used in infused teas for fevers and colic babies.
Elderberry can easily be cultivated from stem cutting from live plants. These cuttings can be placed in water to promote root growth. Adding a rooting hormone can speed up this process. The first year of life is the most critical for care and watering, but once established it will do well without much support. The plant produces berries within the first three years, but it is recommended to clip the flowers to promote foliage and root growth if they arrive before the third year. When planted in a sunny location, elderberry can produce many berries. Elderberry is deer resistant. It attracts butterflies and other pollinators as well as songbirds.
Here in Bella Vista, elderberry can be found along lakes, streams, and forest margins. The white flowers can bloom around the same time as other white flowers that form umbrella shaped flower clusters. It will be significantly taller than other flowers, have a very pleasing floral scent, and woody stems that all originate from one spot. It will usually be found in stands. Other white flowers that bloom around the same time are poison hemlock and wild carrot, which are not shrubs so will not have woody stems. Hemlock and wild carrot also have leaves similar in appearance to parsley and will not have a pleasing smell. Poison hemlock specifically will have a purple stem and must be avoided. Elderberry tends to bloom later as well.