The Elderberries - Sambucus are a small genus made up of only 10 species of which only 2 are commonly found in North America the American Elderberry- Sambucus nigra and the Red Elderberry- Sambucus racemosa, a third Danewort/Dwarf Elderberry- Sambucus ebulus is reported to be naturalized in the Northeast portions of the United States. They are deciduous shrubs, small trees or herbs with very soft wood and conspicuous pith.
The leaves are opposite and compound usually pinnate but occasionally bi-pinnate. The leaflets are lanceolate or ovate with distinctly toothed margins. The flowers are small, white or cream in color and generally made up 3-5 petals and 5 stamens. When crushed the flowers produce a sweet yet rancid odor. The fruit is a fleshy round berry like drupe, red or black in color depending on the species, these berries generally occur in bunches.
Image Citation: (Elderberry Flowers) Ohio State Weed Lab , The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org
The Elderberries are mostly found in moist to wet areas, roadsides, ditches, wetland and woodland margins at elevations ranging from 3-3000 m. It is a dominant under story species in riparian woodlands where it persists despite the competition from other species, it does not however grow well in closed story forests. American Elderberries are found from the central portion of the US (Wisconsin to Texas) all the way to the East Coast and as far North as Nova Scotia. The Red Elderberries are found in a more limited area on either coast of the US, from Alaska in the North and Northern California in the South on the Pacific Coast, Sporadically from Northern Idaho to Arizona and New Mexico in the central portion of the country, and from Wisconsin to Nova Scotia in the North East and West Virginia, Northern Virginia, Maryland and Delaware in the Mid-Atlantic/South.
Image Citation: (Red Elderberry) Gil Wojciech, Polish Forest Research Institute, Bugwood.org
American Elderberry is best distinguished by the black fruit, whereas the Red Elderberry has red fruit. Similar species include Box Elder and Ash, which have similar leaves however neither have fleshy fruits as the Elderberries do. The fleshy fruit is edible and has been used by various cultures including Native Americans, Spaniards, Cahuillas, French, Austrians, and Germans for many different purposes. The berries can be used to make wine, jams, jelly, syrup and pies. When dried they can be cooked down to form a sauce (sometimes called sauco by the Cahuillas) that does not require any type of sweetening. The flowers are sometimes added to batters, eaten raw, added to teas, or even fried for a sweet snack. The twigs can be used to tap Maple trees for Syrup collection, basket weaving, flute and clapper stick making, tinder and even homemade squirt guns (when hollowed out).
Image Citation: (Dwarf Elderberry) Jan Samanek, Phytosanitary Administration, Bugwood.org
Many Elderberries are planted for their ornamental value offering visual interest with both the flowers and the berries, others are planted for the wildlife value as they attract birds, small mammals, rodents, deer and butterflies. They are very a productive, adaptable and easy to establish species. Elderberries also are a very useful ground cover for stabilizing stream banks and other sites that are prone to erosion. Elderberries grow best from seed and are most often sown in the Fall season, cutting from this species are not very successful. This species is recommended for hardiness zones 3-8 and can be found at many nurseries for planting in your own garden.