Species Spotlight: Elderberries

By: Paul Kortebein

April 08, 2021

Category: Nature Notes

Elderberries are easily overlooked shrubs, but they are some of the most widespread plants in our region and Minnesota. They play roles in a variety of habitats, including streambanks, open fields and forest understories. Wildlife (especially birds) feed on the fruit, and deer really like to chew on the stems in winter (which can be annoying but is often not anything to worry about).  

Two varieties are found in Minnesota: common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa). There is an ongoing, and currently unsettled, debate as to whether common elderberry is actually native. We are going to assume that it is for this article. While there is a lot of overlap between the two, common elderberry is generally found in the southern and eastern half of the state, while red-berried elder is found mostly in the northern and eastern part of the state.

Although there is some commonality between the two in appearance, each occupy slightly different niches in the wild, and each are also worth consideration in your next native landscaping project (with some caveats – more to come on that!). Let’s take a closer look at both of these plants.  

Red-berried Elder (Sambucus Racemosa) 

This elder is the more shade tolerant of the two and can be found in the understory of open forests (though it won’t do well under dense shade). It doesn’t like droughty conditions, but it can tolerate a variety of other soils, including very wet soil, making streambank areas a likely location to find this plant.

Red-berried elder does form thickets due to its ability to root sprout, but simply clipping these off at the ground is a good way to keep this plant in check in a more formal landscape. It is very noticeable in spring as it flowers before most other plants have leafed out (usually May-June). In fact, the fruit of this shrub will be bright red when the common elderberry is just flowering.

The berries of the red-berried elder stand out against its green foliage.
Photo credit: "Sambucus racemosa Red Elderberry" by David A. Hofmann is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Speaking of fruit, the fruit is edible, but you need to harvest it at just the right time and make sure you cook it. The fruit and tissue of this shrub do contain cyanogenic glycosides, which can be potentially harmful to humans. In most cases consumption leads to “severe abdominal distress” and/or vomiting. Yum.  

Common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)  

As mentioned previously, there is an ongoing debate as to whether common elderberry is native to Minnesota or a sub-species of the European black elderberry (Sambucus nigra). While not entirely final, consensus appears to be settling on the latter, and many botanists now identify this plant as Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis.

Since it is still unsettled and has been widely distributed in our region for many decades (or even centuries), we will assume it is native to our region. That being said, this species is mainly found in open areas because it is quite intolerant of shade or other competition. We frequently see this plant growing in clumps in open fields or along forest edges or roads. It, too, can wander from its original planting location due to root sprouting.

Similar to red-berried elder, it can tolerate some wet soil conditions, but it is not very good at coping with droughty locations. One distinct difference between the two is flowering time. Common elderberry flowers during the summer (July-August), compared to early spring for red-berried elder. There is less concern with eating the fruit of this elderberry, but the same human consumption warnings go for the leaves, bark and roots of this plant as with red-berried elder. Regardless of which plant you have, cooking the berries before consumption is always a good idea.

Densely packed dark blue-ish red berries of the common elderberry plant.
Common elderberry fruit.

What’s in a Name? 

Both elderberries share a portion of their common name, elder, but there is no real consensus as to where this originated. There are a couple of trains of thought on this. The first is it is a potential derivation from an old English word, eldre, for tree. It could also possibly originate from aeld, which is an Anglo-Saxon word for fire. Apparently, the soft pith of this plant was removed and the stem used as a kind of bellows. Both seem plausible. Take your pick.  

The genus is slightly more straightforward. Sambucus is probably derived from a Greek word sambúkē, which was a type of stringed or (more probably) wind instrument. The "us" ending indicates “one who plays” the sambúkē. My money is on the wind instrument as a number of cultures have used this plant as a type of flute by removing the soft pith.  

How to Identify Your Elders   

One of the main distinguishing characteristics of Sambucus are the large lenticels visible on the stems. These are basically pores for gas exchange. All plants have them, but they are very pronounced on elderberries. In winter, these are easily visible.  

Lenticels can be easily seen on a common elderberry plant in the winter.
The lenticels can be easily seen on this common elderberry.

Another good way to narrow down the ID is the leaf pattern. Elderberries have an opposite leaf arrangement, and there aren’t too many other shrubs with this arrangement (viburnums and honeysuckle being the other big ones).  

In addition to being opposite, the leaves are large and pinnately compound. That is, a number of smaller leaflets make up one leaf. Elderberries usually have five or seven leaflets, though sometimes it could be up to 11.  

If you really want to dig into identifying between these two plants, you can cut a stem and check the color of the pith. This is the part at the very center of the stem. The pith is soft and spongy on both species, but common elderberry has white pith, while red-berried elder is tan to brown in color. 

A common elderberry stem is cut across revealing it's white pith.
Common elderberries have white pith.

Finally, there are the flowers and, eventually, the fruit to help determine which plant you are looking at. Timing is the giveaway for this one. As mentioned earlier, red-berried elder blooms in the early spring and has a vaguely pyramidal shaped cluster of tiny white flowers (a panicle) protruding from the ends of branches. These flowers eventually turn into bright red berries.

Common elderberry, on the other hand, has more of a flat-topped arrangement of flowers (a corymb). They are also white, but the fruit is dark purple to black in color. Red-berried elder fruit will be bright red by the time common elderberry is flowering in mid-summer.  

Propagation and Growing 

One of the easiest ways to propagate this plant is by rooted cuttings. This method will produce genetically identical clones to the parent plant. To do this you simply take a section of the stem with at least 2 nodes (2 sets of buds) and soak them, up to at least one set of buds, in a bucket of water for about a month. You should eventually get tiny new roots forming from the stems and then you can just plant this as you would any other plant.

Conversely, instead of pre-soaking the stems, you can try simply inserting the cut stems directly into the soil. Typically, you want to bury the first set of buds about 2-3 inches deep. Make sure you have good soil contact with the stem and that it gets watered regularly. While this method is less successful, the stem should eventually develop roots and a new plant begin to grow. You can do either of these with any stem thickness, but the thinner ones (about the width of you index finger) appear to root better.  

If you are interested in growing this plant from seed (as we do here at Three Rivers), here are some tips from our Propagation Specialist Missy Anderson:

Collect red-berried elder in mid-late June and common elderberry in late-August through September. We clean the seed of all the fleshy fruit around it (we use a blender) and then cold stratify it (stored in a baggy just above freezing) for several months. After that you can sow it directly into soil or start it in flats and outplant at a later date.   

A pile of common elderberry seeds and a pile of red-berried elder seeds are labeled next to each other on a table.
Elderberry seeds are sorted at the Three Rivers Nursery.

Managing Elderberry Shrubs 

There are no significant diseases or insects that affect this plant. About the biggest problem this plant will encounter is powdery mildew. This is a fungus that coats the leaves with a whitish layer made up of fungal spores (what makes it “powdery”). It is non-fatal to the plant but can reduce its vigor.

If you don’t like the look of this fungus in your landscape, you can try pruning out the affected branches or leaves. If it continues to spread, however, the only real solution is removal of the entire affected plant. Fortunately, powdery mildew does not usually spread between species (that is, powdery mildew on a tomato plant will not necessarily affect elderberry or vice versa).  

As mentioned previously, both of these plants do spread rhizomatously (by their root systems), which can lead to them invading areas of the landscape you had not intended. To combat this simply cut these root sprouts off at the ground.   

The Many Uses of Elderberry 

Both elderberry shrubs have been used by humans for hundreds of years. If the birds don’t get it first, the fruit is very tasty and can be used in a variety of ways. These include pie fillings or jams as well as in the making of wine, mead and brandy. The internet abounds with elderberry-influenced recipes, some of which are very creative.  

The health benefits of elderberry fruit are also becoming more well known. Compared to other mass-produced berries (like blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, or raspberries) elderberry have the highest content of iron, phosphorous, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. Just remember that cooking the fruit is always recommended. 

In general, it is not recommended to consume the foliage, bark, or roots or either of these plants.  

Aside from the human uses of this plant, both elderberries are incredible wildlife resources. The shrub’s ability to form thickets creates habitat for a variety of wildlife, everything from squirrels to birds. Next to open streambanks the arching, overhanging branches provide refuge for a variety of aquatic life. 

A grayish bird eats a dark berry from a common elderberry plant.
Photo credit: "Northern mockingbird eating common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) fruit" by Toni Genberg is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As a food source, many types of birds eagerly consume the fruit, as well as bears, squirrels and other small mammals. In the fall and winter, white-tailed deer, voles and rabbits browse on this plant. This is usually not fatal to the plant, and its fast growth often eventually outgrows the browsing (though a little chicken wire around the plant will also take care of this). 

Climate Change Adaptation and Predictions 

While difficult to predict, it is likely that there will be minimal negative impact on the distribution or performance of elderberries within Minnesota due to climate change. Suitable habitat for both red-berried elder and common elderberry will likely shift further north, but the overall adaptability of this plant to a variety of growing conditions should offset these changes. As a result, its overall importance within natural communities will likely remain fairly stable.   

What this means for Three Rivers is that this plant will remain an important part of our reforestation and restoration efforts. Practically speaking, we feel comfortable propagating and including this plant in all future forest restoration efforts. 

 

Banner image: "File:Sambucus canadensis UL 01.jpg" by Cephas is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 
Archive image: "Sambucus racemosa Red Elderberry" by David A. Hofmann is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About the Author

a man wearing a hat and a backpack. only his head and neck are in the photo.

Paul is the Manager of Forestry and Horticulture at Three Rivers Park District – a position he has held for the past 10 years. Prior to that he was stomping around the wilds of Milwaukee County as the natural areas manager, and before that he was stomping around the wilds of New York City (yes, there are some) as an environmental restoration project manager for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In his spare time he enjoys installing flashing on old windows.

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