Saturday, June 20, 2009


If you have been spending any time outdoors lately, you'll probably have noticed the above. It's a can't miss shrub of early summer, Elderberry, Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis. The white flower panicles are conspicuous, and glow brightly from fencerows, ditches, and woodland borders.

I have fond memories of this plant, as my parents would take me out to pick elderberries with my grandmother in the countryside. Even as a wee lad, I was interested in nearly everything to do with the outdoors, and enjoyed those berry-picking forays as it allowed me chance to explore.

Elderberry is in the Honeysuckle Family (Caprifoliaceae), a group renowned for their aromatic, showy flowers. Each Elderberry blossom is so small it'll likely go unadmired as an individual, but their collective masses are stunning and noticed by all.
Here's a trick you may not know. Take one of the larger branches, which tend to be very straight, cut it to length and remove the soft inner pith. Bingo - you've got an effective pea-shooter! Teach that to your kids first chance you get!

These dark-purple fruit are the most coveted part of Elderberry, and what my grandmother was after. The berries are no good without being cooked; in fact they are somewhat toxic when raw. Eat some and you'll likely hurl. But prepared properly they make good jams, pies, and even wine. Elderberry foliage and bark contains cyanide so you'll not want to chew on those parts, although a number of animals such as deer and rabbit do without ill effect.

Inspect enough Elderberry plants, and sooner or later you might encounter this striking beetle: the Elderberry Borer, Desmocerus palliatus. The larvae mature within the plant, eating inner tissues, and mature into this gorgeous adult form.

Here's an elderberry you may not be familiar with - the only other Ohio species. I photographed this plant two weekends ago in Mohican State Forest. It is Red-berried Elder, Sambucus racemosa, a species of more northerly distribution than our common Elderberry. With us, it tends to be spotty in distribution, and typically only scattered plants are found. It favors cool rocky woods, often on steep slopes, always in well-drained soils.

Red-berried Elder flowers and fruits a few weeks earlier than the other species. When full of berries it is a stunner and would make an excellent ornamental plant, although I don't know how easy it would be to domesticate. If you can, the birds will thank you. The fruit of this elderberry are said to be coveted by Cedar Waxwings, Swainson's Thrushes, American Robins, and many other birds.


Wren said...

I didn't realize there was a kind of elderberry that looked so much like pokeweed & pokeberries. How do you tell them apart? I always thought I had pokeberry in my yard in Virginia, but now I'm wondering.

Jim McCormac said...

That'd be pokeberry in your yard, Wren. Red-bellied Elder is not weedy at all and wouldn't show up in a yard. Just google images of the two species and you'll see that they are very different.


Linda said...

Hi Jim,
I'm not sure if this is a repeat or not, I had to choose an identity after I'd typed my comment.
I grew up in Ohio - Columbus and Delaware and Marysville and have made many an elderberry pie. I now live in Social Circle, GA and we have two large elderberry bushes down by the creek. I just picked all I could before the deer and birds devour them, and alot of them are still reddish or green. Can I let these ripen on the counter? They're much smaller than the juicy big ones in Ohio, but I'm hoping they'll still make a good pie.
Thanks for your help. Don't think I'll be making a pie yet tonight!