Many have memories of a wintertime cough being treated with a Great Aunt’s or Grandmother’s Elderberry Cordial, or the jewel-like colors of wine and jam made from the cooked berries on wintertime pantry shelves. Even if you don’t do any preserving or cooking with Elderberries, Sambucus is a favorite plant of local songbirds, and so would be a very welcome addition to your backyard habitat.
Sambucus generally takes on the size of a large shrub (8-10’), but with sufficient moisture and rich soil can reach tree size (up to about 18-20+’). Because they grow very quickly as seedlings and saplings, they tend to get rangy; some severe pruning early on will encourage fuller growth.
The native Elderberry can be a very handsome specimen, with careful placement and attention to water and pruning; they are attractive in both flower and fruit and would make a colorful addition to the wild garden.
Sambucus Racemosa – Red Elderberry
This is the Elderberry of the region west of the Cascades, both in the mountains and lowlands. Of the native species it is the more likely to maintain a multi-stemmed shrub form; found along streambanks and in swampy conditions, it can still reach over 10’ in height. In late spring flowers start to form, conical or pyramidal sprays of tiny white flowers. They are followed by clusters of bright red berries that are very attractive to birds and are used in cooking (see sidebar note on toxicity of Sambucus).
Sambucus caerulea –Blue Elderberry.
Tall deciduous shrub (though nearly evergreen in mild climates) growing in a variety of conditions and reaching typically from 15 to 20 feet at maturity, often taking a broad, tree form. This is the eastside Elderberry, more tolerant of dry and hot conditions, though it too thrives with regular moisture; in the wild it is most commonly found along streams and waterways.
Yellow-white flowers, displayed in flat-topped clusters, are followed by intense blue berries that are visable from a long distance and add a distinct beauty. Birds love the berries and they are also often used in cooking and preserves (see sidebar note on toxicity of Sambucus).
Common name: Elderberry
Characteristics: Deciduous shrubs with long branches carrying opposite, lance-shaped and toothed leaves. Flowers in sprays of white, followed by clusters of berries that are attractive to birds, and edible to humans when cooked. Mature size varies by species and growing conditions, can range from 6-18’ tall.
Culture: Elderberry prefers regular water, generally in full sun, though can tolerate partial shade.
Care and maintenance: Elderberry can get leggy and rangy, and so benefit from regular and occasionally severe pruning.
Toxicity: Though the berries of native Sambucus are edible, they must be cooked first, as they frequently cause nausea and stomach upset when eaten raw. The leaves, woody stems and especially the roots are extremely toxic, due to the presence of cyanide-causing gliconides.