common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
American black elderberry
Sambucus caerulea Raf. var. mexicana (C. Presl ex DC.) L.D. Benson
Sambucus canadensis L.
Sambucus canadensis L. var. laciniata A. Gray
Sambucus canadensis L. var. submollis Rehder
Sambucus cerulea Raf. var. mexicana (C. Presl ex DC.) L.D. Benson
Sambucus mexicana C. Presl ex DC.
Sambucus orbiculata Greene
Sambucus simpsonii Rehder ex Sarg.
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Confirmed.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of common elder-
berry is Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis (L.) R. Bolli. There are num-
erous horticultural forms and varieties of American elder. Cultivars include
1) acutiloba, 2) dissecta, and 3) laciniata, all of which have dissected leaf-
lets, 4) aurea, with golden yellow leaves and red fruit, 5) chlorocarpa, with
pale gold leaves and greenish fruit, and 6) maxima, a larger form with
cymes to 15 in. (38 cm) across.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS: This is a native peren-
nial shrub or small tree that is usually 5-10' tall. Often have multiple stems;
if it has a singel trunk, the trunk is usually short. The woody stems tend to
arch outward from the base, particularly when there are drupes or flowers.
These stems have a white pith, and are brittle and weak. The bark is
smooth and brown becoming shallowly furrowed and rough with age. Twigs
are stout, silvery- to yellow-gray with obvious, warty lenticles, large white
pith; buds are very small, red-brown and pointed, terminal buds are gener-
ally lacking. The compound leaves are oddly pinnate, consisting of 2-4 pairs
of opposite leaflets and a single terminal leaflet. Each leaflet is 2-3" long and
about half as wide, with an ovate tp elliptical shape and slightly serrate mar-
gins. Leaflets have acuminate tips, bottom leaflets are often 3-lobed, dark
green above and much paler below.The overall effect is similar to the com-
pound leaves of an ash tree. The tiny white flowers occur in rather flat-top-
ped compound umbels about 4-6" across, and have a pleasant, if somewhat
musty, fragrance. The flowers are 5-parted with calyx lobes minute or
absent, tiny corollas, about 1/5 inch wide, creamy white. There are 5
stamens, with white filaments and pale yellow anthers. Flowers bloom dur-
ing the early summer for about a month, from which small purple-black
drupes develop later in the summer. The drupes are very juicy, up to 1/4
inch in diameter, borne in flat-topped clusters. Occasionally, some of the
woody stems will die back during the winter, but these are replaced by
new stems appearing from the base. The lateral roots form a fibrous,
REGENERATION PROCESS: Common elderberry propogates itself by
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: This shrub likes full or partial sun and a
moist loamy soil, although it will grow in sandy and heavy clay soils. The
plant prefers acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It grows readily along
sources of water, assuming that there is not too much flooding. Forest or
natural areas in moist, open woods; weedy in disturbed areas in fields,
roadsides, ditches. It can tolerates strong winds but not maritime exposure;
it can tolerate atmospheric pollution.
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS: Common elderberry is a shrub of the peri-
phery of natural environments. It does occur in mature forest settings,
but usually where there is sufficient sun due to storm damage or human
intervention. It is much better in initial and mid- successional stages,
particularly in situations where it does not compete with natural wood-
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: Flowers bloom for about a month in early
summer and fruit (drupes) in latter summer.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Common elderberry is found throughout
most of the United States except for the Great Basin southwest region and
the Pacific Northwest region. It is found in all the eastern Canadian
provinces (except Newfoundland) and extends as far west as Manitoba.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION:
Shrub specimens can be found on trails marked in red.
Appalachian Trail/Old Trail
South Ridge/North Ridge
Rolling Meadows/ Lost Mountain
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES: It can be found in
moist black soil prairies, open woodlands, thickets, moist meadows near
rivers or moist woodlands, thickets, abandoned fields, powerline cuts,
stream banks, and along roadside ditches and fencerows. This plant can
tolerate most disturbances, except regular mowing or plowing. Common
elderberry is one of the shrubby invaders of eastern prairies around rivers
or floodplain forests.
American elder is a common species of southern bottomland hardwood
forests, where it grows in seasonally to intermittently flooded forests
and in transition zones grading from wetland to upland sites. On its
wettest sites, elderberry is associated with sugarberry (Celtis laevigata),
green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), American elm (Ulmus americana),
sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and Nuttall oak (Quercus nuttallii).
In the highest and best-drained areas of a floodplain forest, elderberry is
found with water oak (Quercus nigra), American beech (Fagus grandifolia),
and hickories (Carya spp.); on slightly drier sites, it occurs with loblolly pine
(Pinus taeda) and live oak (Quercus virginiana). In wetland-to-upland
transition zones, elderberry occurs with trees intolerant of saturated soils,
including several species of oak, ash, and hickory. Elderberry is frequently
found in young pine plantations in Mississippi where, depending on site pre-
paration and management, it can constitute a major portion of the woody
forage component of that habitat.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: The pollen of the flowers attract Halictine
bees, Syrphid flies, Bee flies, Muscid flies, Anthomyiid flies, and various
beetles. The larvae of Achetodes zeac (elder borer moth) and Desmo-
cerus palliatus (elderberry longhorn beetle) bore into the stems and
eat the pith or roots, while the larvae of Tenthrado grandis (elderberry
sawfly) and adult Metachroma spp. (leaf beetles) eat the foliage or
flowers. The hollow stems of common elderberry provide nesting mater-
ial for Osmia spp. (Mason bees) and Ceratina spp. (Little Carpenter bees).
The small drupes are consumed by numerous songbirds during the sum-
mer, and by such animals as the fox squirrel and white-footed mouse.
This assists in the distribution of the shrub to new areas. During the fall
or winter, the white-tailed deer and cottontail rabbit may browse on
the bark or woody stems. Elk are known to browse on this shrub in other
areas. Livestock may browse on the leaves and stems, particularly after
a heavy frost in the fall. There have been reports of the leaves poisoning
livestock, especially cattle and horses, if they are browsed earlier in the
year when toxicity is higher.
Common elderberry is an attractive shrub, but often ignored because
of its ubiquitous occurrence. In fact, people often destroy this shrub along
fences or waterways in residential areas, notwithstanding its outstanding
value to wildlife, particularly to songbirds.
Parts of American elder have been used for a variety of purposes: the dark,
juicy berries for making wines, jellies and pies; the flowers for flavoring
candies and jellies; the bark for making a black dye; and the leaves, bark
and flowers for making a variety of homemade medicinal remedies. Al-
though the cooked ripe fruit is edible, raw or unripe berries and other
plant parts are somewhat toxic. The berries are a good source of vitamin
C. Native Americans used elderberry to treat colds, fevers, headaches,
indigestion, and rheumatism.
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