Sambucus racemosa var. racemosaRed Elderberry
Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa. Photo by James Gaither
The red elderberry is native to North America, Europe and Asia. As a deciduous shrub or small tree, it can reach 18 feet in height. Delicate white flowers in large pyramidal-shaped clusters appear from May to mid-summer followed by bright red or, more rarely, yellow inedible berries in the fall. The flowers often attract native butterfly and bird species. The leaves are pinnate with 5-7 leaflets, each leaflet reaching 2-6 inches long.
It grows on moist slopes and flats, in wooded canyons, and from sea level up to 6,000 feet. They grow fast and can tolerate wet winters. In cultivation it is usually undemanding of care and thrives in reasonably well-drained soil in both sun and shade.
The fruit of black (blue) elderberry, Sambucus nigra, which has a flat-topped flower cluster and blue-black fruits, are edible and have been used medicinally to treat flu symptoms, alleviate allergies and boost overall respiratory health. The flowers can be used to produce an elderflower cordial. The Italian liqueur sambuca contains oil from the elderflower, and in Germany, yogurt desserts are made with both the berries and the flowers.
Note: the roots, bark, stems, leaves and unripe fruit of all species are toxic.
There is a lot of folklore surrounding elderberry. In some areas, it was known to ward off evil and give protection, especially from witches; others believed that witches would congregate under the plant when in full fruit. In popular culture 'elderberries' are referenced in many novels, movies and songs including The Rolling Stones' "Till the Next Goodbye" and the line in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "Your father smelled of elderberries."
This plant has been moved in and out of several plant families over the years including Garryaceae, Cornaceae, Grossulariaceae and Caprifoliaceae. The most recent molecular data has placed it in the Adoxaceae family which also includes Viburnum.
||Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa
||Adoxaceae (formerly Caprifoliaceae)
||Flowering shrub or small tree
||Can take shade or some sun, needs moisture, fast growing
||Shrub or small tree to 18'
||There are many cultivars that display gold, purple or green foliage.
Jepson Flora Project
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS:
Text by David Kruse-Pickler. Photos by Joanne Taylor and James Gaither.