Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pacific Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa)

Sambus racemosa

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.

Sambucus racemoca
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. 

Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea Blue elderberry Wallowas

Fruits of the blue elderberry, Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea. “Caerulea” means blue.

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. 

Wildlife value
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.

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. 

© 2018 Eileen M. Stark 

13 thoughts on Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pacific Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa)

  1. Are red elderberries self-pollinating or should at least two be planted?

    1. Good question; red elderberry flowers are monoecious, which means they have both male and female parts and are considered somewhat self-fertile. But for cross pollination (and more fruit) it would be good to have more than one. So, if you have the space, the more the better. Thank you for growing natives!

  2. I have hunted the cascades of oregon for decades in the fall. Sometimes I find entire mountainsides of blue elderberry bushes so full of berries the limbs droop heavily. I pick some of the most ripe fruit and eat them. It is definitely a fruit that must be at its uttermost ripeness to enjoy. Too soon and they are bitter. What’s interesting is that the elk think so as well. Bears not so much it seems. I have seen 100 acres of dense bushes full completely gone the next day because a herd of elk came through during the night. A stunning sight to behold as the elk also knock the bush down to get at the berries. I have found tall bushes, more like trees. The black bear eat the bottom berries away. The harder up they get for food the more they pull down from the top. Recent years have produced far less berries of poorer quality, so much so that I have not been able to find the really sweet ripe ones for sometime now. I always love to see them in the fall before the snow.

  3. Thank you so much for this article. I have only been in Washington for a year, originally from the high mountains of New Mexico. There is this wonderful healthy bush growing on the west side of the barn and I really felt it was an elderberry until it produced tiny red fruits in early July. I had never seen or heard of a red elderberry and was sad, because I have picked the blue variety all my life and use the syrup I make from it every winter to help with immunity.
    I am delighted to hear my bush is a true elderberry and will now nurture it more wisely.

  4. My Elderberry died .last Spring. It was green and healthy leaved one day as usual. The very next day the leaves were brown and dry and drooping. We dug it out and found baby Sambucus BORERS with very healthy appetites. There have been a couple of occurrences on the east side (I am in Seattle) and a few in the North Cascades. I hope this is not an indication of things to come.
    I replanted with Indian Plum.

    Great Blog. Lots of information and aesthetically laid out.

    1. Arlene, I’m very sorry to hear of your elderberry. It seems you have researched this, and from this, it appears that they don’t know which species of elderberry borer it is. I will add to my post some info about detection/monitoring. Thanks for letting me know. I hope you like the Indian plum.

  5. I love this blog. I have lived in the PNW since 1/2017. We were moved here with the army and we bought our first house which is on about an acre and a half of land. I think I literally find just about everything I have read thus far in your articles here on my little bit of heaven. I appreciate your articles and all the education they provide me. Thank you

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Jamie. I’m so glad it’s been of help to you … I need to write more and will soon! I envy your large yard–mine’s quite small but not too bad for a city. Have you seen my book? Public libraries have it, as well as all the usual book stores, etc. Thanks again for your comment.

  6. I have found a red elderberry stand on a property we bought on the Olympic peninsula. I grew up in Denmark where we make a sweet flavored syrup with the flowers of elderberry which we dilute with water for a refreshing summer drink. We use ripe elderberry for fruit soups. Do you think i can use the pacific red elderberry the same way?

  7. No discussion of the elderberry would be complete without mention of Sambuca, the Italian anise-flavored nectar of the gods. The legendary liqueur gets its name from the elderberry, and is often flavored with its flowers and fruit.

    Many experienced Sambuca drinkers add three coffee beans to each serving, representing Health, Happiness and Prosperity. Some use 7 beans, to represent the seven hills of Rome. The bravest set it alight briefly to improve the aroma and flavor … just remember to blow it out before drinking!

    An evening among the elderberries, sipping warm Sambuca, might define perfection. 🙂


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