Friday, June 28, 2013

Black Elderberry

Elder usually has seven sharply-toothed leaflets,
but the number can vary from five to 11.
© Dave Spier

Common Elder, a.k.a. Black Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, syn. Sambucus nigra, ssp. canadensis) is a native member of the Honeysuckle family. Beyond the opposite, pinnately-compound leaves, there's little resemblence to indicate the relationship. 

Numerous, small, white flowers are crowded into flat-topped terminal disks that are conspicuous in late June and early July in New York. The flower clusters can be dipped in batter and deep-fried like fritters, or wait for the dark-purple, juicy berries to ripen and make a pie. The dark fruits give the shrub it's alternate name, American Black Elderberry. Aside from the mentioned edibility, take note that the leaves, twigs, roots and unripe fruit are toxic due to cyanogenic glycoside and alkaloid.

The woody stems contain white pith that can be removed in order to make a flute or whistle. This musical quality is the basis of the genus name; in ancient Greece, sambuce was a musical instrument. Given the toxicity of the stems, though, I'd rethink this use for the plant.

Common Elder's range spans all of the southern states from California to Florida, north across most of the Lower 48 (except the Great Basin and Pacific Northwest) and continues north into eastern Canada. There's a range map on the USDA Plants Database. Many of the states have more detailed maps down to the county level. For example, the opening photo was taken at Newtown Battlefield State Park, near Elmira, NY, but the shrub occurs in other scattered locations across New York State.

This elderberry seems to require more sunlight than it's woodland cousin the Red-berried Elder, so look for the purple-fruited species on the edge of woods, usually in lowland spots where there is extra soil moisture, although I would not describe it as a true wetland species because of its low anaerobic tolerance. We live on top of a drumlin ridge and a Common Elder has "volunteered" to grow behind the garage where it is somewhat sunny, at least part of the day. We can assume the original seed was dropped by a bird. A number of species including robins, catbirds and waxwings are berry eaters. I'd be interested in knowing whether elderberry grows near you.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There's also a community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.


Phyllis Fitzsimons said...

Hi Dave,
The first thing that comes to my mind is yarrow, the flowers look so similar to me. I imagine the leaves of course are different...I've not taken note of yarrow leaves. Reading Common elder is found here in California makes me wonder if I've seen it, thinking it was yarrow.

The Northeast Naturalist said...

Thanks, Phyllis. By the time elderberry is old enough to flower, it's a sizeable, woody shrub. Yarrow is a fairly small herbaceous, sun-loving plant. The yarrow leaves are finely divided and "ferny" looking, but small and quite aromatic.

Anonymous said...

We do have this plant here in Southern California and I can attest that it makes the some spectacularly delicious preserves. The berries were cooked so no worries of toxicity - at least that was my understanding when I ate it with gusto.