Respect your elders! Words of wisdom to be sure, and I can’t help but apply them to elderberry shrubs as well. Long regarded as weedy, native elderberry approval ratings are inching up due to their ecological, medicinal, and ornamental charms.
Besides having good looks and high wildlife value, the botanical name given to this deciduous shrub attests to centuries of use by humans. The genus name, Sambucus, comes from Latin (sambūcus), from Ancient Greek σαμβύκη (sambúkē, “sambuca”), and ultimately from Aramaic ܣܐܒܒܥܚܐ (sabbekha). It originates from the plant’s association with an ancient musical wind instrument of Asian origin, known as the sambuca, made from the branches of a species of elderberry. According to Wiccan lore, it was used to summon spirits. The epithet of the Pacific Northwest’s red elderberry — racemosa — refers to its unbranched inflorescence (a raceme) with multiple short-stalked flowers. The common name, elder or elderberry, is thought to come from the the Anglo-saxon aeld, meaning fire, since the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow air into the center of a fire (but don’t you dare place elder wood, also called “Witch-wood,” in the fire or it will cause it to die out, according to The Wicca Garden by Gerina Dunwich).
Most elderberry species are native to the northern hemisphere, but no matter where they grow, they’ve been used in cooking, in the making of dye or ink, and as medicine. According to folklore, elder is said to ward off and cure disease and offer protection from lightening, saddle sores and all forms of evil. As far as consuming elderberries, they are reportedly highly nutritious and not toxic when fully ripe. However, I suggest erring on the side of caution and cooking them first since unripe, bitter-tasting fruit may cause stomach upset. Cooked berries (with seeds strained out) are tart but can be made into wine, jelly, preserves, syrups, or sauces. Seeds, roots, flowers, green fruit pulp, and leaves create cyanide-producing glycosides.
There’s been quite a bit of bickering and confusion in the literature over the classification of Sambucus species. Historically, Sambucus racemosa (native to Europe and Asia) was commonly called European red elder, while the very similar North American native Sambucus pubens (syn S. racemosa var. pubens), native to eastern North America, was known colloquially as American red elder. Some authorities have now grouped both of these red elders together under the name of Sambucus racemosa, while others have included several former species, S. callicarpa and S. pubens, as part of the subspecies Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa, which is native to the Pacific coast states. The genus Sambucus was previously placed in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) but recently was reclassified as a member of the small Adoxaceae family, which includes Viburnum.
How it grows
A large, handsome, deciduous, upright perennial shrub, Pacific red elderberry rises from several tightly clustered basal stems. Pinnately compound, lance-shaped leaves with downy undersides that may grow to six inches long are striking in themselves but take a back seat when lacy, conical to egg-shaped panicles of small creamy-white fragrant flowers steal the show in late spring to early summer. A few months later, the pea-sized, berrylike fruits, known as drupes, ripen to a brilliant red.
In the wild, it may grow up to 18 feet in height and about 8 to 10 feet in width, but may stay smaller in garden situations. Though it shows a preference for partial shade, it will tolerate full sun or full shade, though the latter will cause it to look straggly as its branches reach for more light. It is moderately long-lived; upright branches become more arched with age.
In the Pacific Northwest, red elderberry naturally occurs in moist to mesic meadows, grasslands, riparian areas, forests, canyons, ditches, and disturbed places at low to middle elevations from southern Alaska into California. In Washington and Oregon it mainly occurs west of the Cascades.
Another elderberry, blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), typically grows larger (up to 30 feet tall) and develops bluish-purple fruits, often with a whitish coating, that are immensely important for wildlife during late summer and fall. It occurs widely within most western states in open forests and riparian areas and may be found on slopes where it helps control erosion. Plants subjected to drought may develop interesting gnarly branches and stockier trunks with age.
Elderberry shrubs provide food, cover, and nesting provisions for many wildlife species. Flowers provide nectar and pollen for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators. Fruits (when fully ripe) are eaten by many mammals and birds; red elderberries are the main ingredient of band-tailed pigeons’ summer diet. Some native birds and bee species use the plants for nest structure and the leaves may be used for nest material. Both red and blue elderberry are hosts for the caterpillars of the echo azure butterfly (and possibly other lepidoptera).
Try it at home
Since elderberry plants are typically fast growing, they’re perfect for young gardens, where they can provide screening and structure overnight (well, almost). Although pruning them back can usually be done without killing them, they’re best left to do what nature intended, so be sure you give them enough space! (If you find yourself with saw in hand, remember this superstition: You must apologize three times to an elder when pruning it or cutting it down; otherwise bad luck will befall you.)
With ample space, elderberry shrubs make stunning focal points, living screens, shrub borders or wide hedges, and provide connectivity between low perennials and tall trees, as well as erosion control along the edges of streams and ponds. Plant several to encourage more flowers and fruit.
They’re easy to grow when a few guidelines are followed. Sun: Partial shade to full sun; the more sun, the greater the flower and fruit production. Soil: Though the perfect conditions would be moist (but well-drained) rich soil near a babbling brook, elderberries can handle dryer conditions and clay soil (not sandy soil). Though they thrive in regularly irrigated areas, once fully established they are drought tolerant, but appreciate an occasional deep drink prior to and during the Pacific Northwest’s dry summers.
Grab a partner
Growing native plants with the associated species they evolved with is best, so in the Pacific Northwest consider growing red elderberry with species such as Douglas-fir, vine maple, red-twig dogwood, osoberry, thimbleberry, orange honeysuckle, goat’s beard, fairybells, and sword and deer ferns.
Finally, there are numerous elderberry cultivars that have been developed by plant breeders looking for certain characteristics that can be maintained through propagation, such as plant size or flower or leaf characteristics. Cultivars are not natural varieties found in nature, and although some do provide well for wildlife, studies show that many aren’t as attractive and useful; their pollen, nectar and/or fruits may be deficient in nutrients, which is especially problematic for migrating birds who need high quality nutrients that provide lots of energy. And some cultivars may actually lack nectar, or their flowers may be so complex that pollinators can’t even use them. A recent study on pollinators found that the more manipulated the cultivars became, the less attractive they were to pollinators. Moreover, genetic diversity is the foundation of biodiversity, which is the foundation for healthy ecosystems. True native species provide genetic diversity; native cultivars do not.
NOTE: An unknown species of elderberry borer has been found on elderberry plants in Washington State. Although it’s not clear from this article whether it could be a native species or an imported one, it offers information on how to monitor and manage if necessary. If the insect turns out to be non-native, here is yet another reason to buy native, locally grown plants, rather than purchasing natives or cultivars from who-knows-where that could bring in unwanted and problematic insects.