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Plant of the Week: Elderberry

Picture of Elderberry flowers.

Elderberry has a dense cluster of flowers in midsummer followed by clusters of purple-black berries.(Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman)

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Plant of the Week

Latin: Sambucus canadensis

I grew up in the prairies of central Oklahoma about 30 miles west of the great deciduous forest of eastern North America. Like farm families everywhere, we took advantage of the native flora for our dinner table eating several kinds of wild greens, making jelly from possum grapes and jam from the sand plums.

However, I’ve never had an elderberry pie (Sambucus canadensis) because its native range stopped with the woodlands to our east. 

Elderberry is one of a several dozen deciduous species of Sambucus, along with viburnums, belonging to the newly created family Adoxaceae. Elderberry grows as weak wooded, multi-stemmed woody shrubs to 12 feet tall and wide.

The stems have a large pith that becomes hollow as the branches mature.  Stems usually only survive about five years and then die but new shoots arise from the crown and stoloniferous root suckers so individual plants can survive for a long time. It is native to the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada where it typically grows adjacent to creeks, roadsides or the forest edge. 

Leaves are pinnately compound and up to a foot long with five to nine 4-inch-long toothed leaflets. In the wild American form leaves are a deep green, but colored and dissected leaf selections have been made of the European cousin S. nigra. ‘Black Beauty’, ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Purpurea’ are dark-leafed selections that have been widely offered over the past two decades.  ‘Aurea’, ‘Madonna’ and ‘Marginata’ are golden variegated forms. ‘Laciniata’ (green leafed) and ‘Black Lace’ have extensively dissected leaves.

Small white 5-petaled flowers are produced in midsummer in flat-topped flower clusters 6 to 10 inches across. Plants bloom on new wood, so even if the plants are cut back annually they should continue to bloom. Purple-black pea sized berries are produced in late summer in profusion, especially if two clones are planted to ensure pollination. 

Elderberry has been used extensively as food, drink and medicine. The flower clusters may be dipped in egg batter and fried as a fritter or mixed with pancake batter or muffins to give the cakes a sweet, pleasant flavor. The ripe berries are edible but foul tasting and most often spoken of as being used in elderberry pies, jelly and for fermenting into elderberry wine. The foul taste of the berries is removed by cooking.  Simmer the berries in a minimal amount of water for 15 minutes before using the fruit. 

The bark is used in a number of herbal remedies.  

When viewed up close, elderberry is a scraggly and unkempt shrub with a shopworn look. The wild form is best used along wet areas or edge-of-garden locations where it can be massed.  Every 3 to 5 years these plantings should be cut back to maintain a semblance of order unless the intent is to let the location go native. 

The colored foliage forms can be planted in the large sunny border but to maintain size they are often cut to the ground each winter. Flowering and best color development is best in full sun locations but elderberry will tolerate moderate shade and still produce some flowers. 

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired 

Retired Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - September 12, 2014


The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.