I watched our native red elderberries go through their spring progression back in March and April. They’re one of the first shrubs to start unfurling their leaves, beginning in mid-March. Now that summer is here, they’re covered in bright red fruit. There are some big patches of elderberries beside I-5 where they’re easy to spot (and identify) even at 70 mph. Of course, they’re easier to learn at a more leisurely pace in your backyard or along a quiet trail.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we have two species of elderberry. More common on the west side of the Cascades is the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa). It is native to much of North America, according to USDA Plants Database. The other is blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea), which grows throughout western North America. Both species of elderberry have similar cultivation requirements, as does another species found in eastern North America.
Red elderberry is a good-sized multi-stemmed shrub with glossy, pinnately compound leaves with 5-7 leaflets. The stems are pithy and soft, barely woody. In April and early May it is covered in pyramidal clusters of creamy white flowers. Each individual blossom is small, but together the 1-5 inch clusters are quite showy. By midsummer the shrubs are covered with clumps of bright red berries. In some areas, particularly east of the Cascades and in the Rocky Mountain region, you’ll find variety melanocarpa, which has purplish to black fruit.
Blue elderberry is more common on the east side of the Cascades, but appears sporadically west of the mountains, too. It has flat-topped clusters of creamy white blossoms, with each cluster often several inches across. Blue elder blooms a little later than the red. It can grow to be more tree-like, with woodier stems and branches. Leaves are opposite, glossy, and pinnately divided into 5-9 leaflets. Fruits ripen to a deep blue-black, covered in a whitish, waxy coating.
Elderberries get established best in sunny locations with deep, moist but well-drained, loamy soil. Once established they can tolerate a fair amount of shade. They grow well in riparian areas. In the garden, eldeberries take well to pruning as they resprout readily after damage or fire. Seeds have a very hard coat which requires fire, mechanical action, passing through an herbivore’s digestive system, or mechanical action to crack. Sown in the fall, they may not germinate until the second spring. They sprout from rhizomes, so new plants can be established by digging sprouts and cutting the connecting root.
Both red and blue elderberries are consumed by a wide variety of mammals and birds, including grosbeaks, finches, and robins, making them a good choice for the back of the border in a wildlife garden. It is a host plant for some butterfly larvae. Deer and elk browse on the foliage. Reportedly, red elderberry produces a bitter chemical to protect itself from over-browsing.
The fruit of blue elderberries is edible by humans either raw or cooked. Red elderberries should be cooked before eating them. That’s not really a problem, as the more common uses for elderberry fruit are to make jam or wine.
We’ve found that our chickens absolutely love our red elderberry fruit. We pick clusters of berries and they’ll eat them right out of our hands. We have a lot of elderberries in our shrub border and have had fun watching smaller birds devour them as well.
More information about elderberries is available from the US Forest Service Fire Information System: red elderberry and blue elderberry. You can find more photos of both species on my Pacific Northwest Wildflowers website. Both red and blue elderberries are treated in both my new Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest and in Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, which you can order online.