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July 9, 2020
Elderberry inflorescence are massive, pretty, fragrant, and thoroughly enjoyed by pollinators. Photo by Ryan Davis.
Despite being scruffy, warty, and alien-looking, common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a magnificent shrub. It is hugely beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife and produces a fruit that is prized for food and medicine alike. Elderberry is also incredibly hardy, fast-growing, and prolific, making it a surefire choice for restoration plantings. Though it is indeed quite common, elderberry deserves our admiration as an ever-critical resource for critters and conservationists alike.
Common elderberry has a massive range, stretching through eastern Canada and the U.S., down to South America. It grows best in moist, rich soils and in full sun. In the wild, it is most often found in wetlands, floodplains, along stream banks, and old fields. Its tenacity and fast growth are excellent adaptations to these habitats, which are frequently beset by disturbance such as floods, ice scour, and herbivores. Elderberry will vigorously put on new growth to old stems and root-sucker, often forming dense multi-stemmed clumps.
Elderberry is pretty easy to identify. Like other members of the family Adoxaceae (which also includes viburnum shrubs), elderberry has an opposite branching pattern, meaning each node of growth hosts two leaves or stems. Its typical height is 5 to 15 feet tall, but may grow to 25 feet on ideal sites. Elderberry has 5 to 9 inch long pinnately compound leaves with 5 to 11 leaflets per leaf (usually 7 or 9 in my experience). The leaflets have a serrated margin and the petiole typically swells around the stem, looking a bit like the base of a celery stalk. The stems are speckled with small round bumps (the aforementioned wartiness), which are lenticels that assist in gas exchange. Elderberry pith tissue is white in living stems, and very quickly shrivels up in dead stems, to the extent that they are nearly hollow. These hollow dead stems supposedly make perfect flutes or whistles, but I strongly discourage putting plant tissue in your mouth; all parts of the elderberry except its flowers and cooked fruit are quite poisonous to humans.
This elderberry was planted as a bare-root seedling (just like the ones in the bucket) only a year earlier than this photo was taken. Talk about fast growth! Photo by Ryan Davis.
On a sunnier note, those hollow dead stems are excellent nesting sites for small cavity-nesting native bees. Elderberry has a habit of substantial stem die back during the winter and then vigorous regrowth from lower on the shrub each spring, meaning there are often ample dead branches for the bees to enjoy. But of course the pollinator benefits don’t stop there! Elderberry is a prolific producer of fragrant flowers, which are 5-petaled, creamy white in color, and held in large round cyme clusters. I typically see them blooming in late June to early July here in southeastern Pennsylvania. The dark purple fruit (which is actually a drupe, not a berry) will ripen later in the summer, usually in August or early September. This is a very important source of calories for songbirds, who at that time are busy fattening up in preparation for a harsh winter at home or migration to warmer climes. Beyond a seasonal food source, dense elderberry clumps make excellent nesting and escape cover for birds and other fauna year-round.
Elderberry fruit are also cherished by humans. I’ll repeat my disclaimer, that all parts of the elderberry except its flowers and cooked fruit are quite poisonous to humans. The cooked fruit sure is tasty though! It makes an excellent jam, and I have heard it is lovely as a cold juice or made into wine. Elderberry juice has been used medicinally by cultures around the world (there are species of elderberry on every continent but Antarctica) as a cough syrup, anti-inflammatory, and immune system booster.
If you find an elderberry with ripe fruit, you better pick fast! It won’t take birds long to find and devour them. Photo by Ryan Davis.
I am abundantly happy to plant hundreds of common elderberries in our riparian forest buffer plantings each year. Landowners love it, critters love it, and I love it for how quickly it grows and how tenaciously it will establish itself on a site. As a pioneer species, elderberry specializes in quickly growing in open, wet areas, which is precisely where we are working to re-establish riparian forests. They will begin to stabilize erosion-prone stream banks within just a few years, and begin to spread around the site when birds start dispersing its seeds. Elderberry’s propensity for adventitious rooting helps it to survive after trauma and makes it a good candidate for live staking, though you have to be sure to select stems that are still alive when harvesting stakes. I can’t recommend elderberry enough!
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