Red Elderberry

Red-flowering Currant, Red Elderberry at woodland edge

Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, flowers are peaking in our woods and woodland border right now. This medium-sized Pacific Northwest native shrub puts on quite a show when she’s in bloom, covered in masses of somewhat pyramid-shaped clusters of small white flowers. In the photo above of the woodland border in our garden, made a couple of weeks ago on April 12, the flowers have yet to emerge among the newly unfolding leaves. The showy red flowers are red-flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, blooming below the elderberry.

We’ve been watching our elderberries develop all month as they come into flower, and now as the flowers begin to fade.

Red Elderberry flower buds emerging

I first noticed flower buds starting to develop on our elderberries on April 6. The clusters of buds were still very tightly closed.

Red Elderberry flower buds detail

Just eleven days later, on April 17, the clusters of buds have expanded and are on the cusp of opening.

Red Elderberry blossoms [Sambucus racemosa]. Turner Photographics Woodland, Bellingham, WA. © Mark Turner [2002136]

Like most flowering plants, blossoms open at different times. This cluster of flowers was on the same plant and photographed the same day as the cluster of buds just above.

Red Elderberry blossoms and foliage

Red elderberry flowers are in clusters at the ends of the branches, rising from between pairs of the opposite leaves which are divided into 5-7 leaflets. Our other native elderberry, Sambucus cerulea or blue elderberry, has flat-topped clusters of flowers and 5-9 leaflets. In western Washington blue elderberry blooms later than red elderberry.

Red Elderberry blossoms detail

When you bring your face close to red elderberry blossoms you’ll be rewarded with a view like this, as well as a wonderful sweet aroma.

Red Elderberry

Red elderberry is an understory shrub or small tree, growing in open woods under larger trees like red alders and bigleaf maples. It also thrives in full sun and forest edges. Here it’s blooming on April 26 in our woods.

Red Elderberry immature fruit

Individual clusters of red elderberry blossoms don’t last long. This cluster of immature fruit, photographed just as the petals were falling, was on the same plant as many fresh blossoms.

Red Elderberry blooming above Red-flowering Currant

This last photo shows the same combination of red elderberry and red-flowering currant as the first one. It’s part of the view we enjoy from our kitchen window every day. This photo was made on April 19 when the flowers were at early peak, with most blossoms open and a few buds waiting to open. Today, on April 29, the flowers have mostly faded. In a few more weeks this specimen and most of the others around our place will be covered with bright red berries that we’ll leave for the birds.

Red elderberry fruit is edible by humans only after cooking. They’re considered to be toxic when raw.

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