Other names and notes

Trees and Shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden
The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States






Canada Elderberry

Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis (L.) R. Bolli

Old - Sambucus canadensis L.

Elderberry (Adoxaceae)

formerly in Honeysuckle (Caprifoliaceae)

Early summer

(American Black Elderberry, American Elder). A large growing, late flowering native perennial shrub that only comes into flower in mid-June and can still be flowering while the early fruit is ripening. Stems, usually multiple, can reach up to 10 feet high, usually arching. While the plant can form a small tree, in Minnesota it is found as a multi-stemmed shrub. The bark is smooth becoming furrowed and rougher with age. Twigs and young stems are yellow-green with large warty lenticels and a white brittle pith. Leaves are opposite, pinnate with 2 to 4 opposite pairs of leaflets and one terminal leaflet, all with serrate edges, and ovate in shape. The bottom leaflet often is 3-lobed. The upper surface is darker green, the underside paler with fine white hair on the veins. Inflorescence: Flowers occur in a cluster of umbels, the cluster being dense and somewhat flat-topped, but quite wide - up to 8 inches. Each umbel of the cluster has 5 flowers. Flowers: The flowers are small, with a white corolla that has 5 rounded and spreading petals. There are 5 stamens, with yellow anthers and white filaments, that are erect to somewhat spreading and are placed alternate to the corolla lobes. The stigma is 5-lobed and lacks a style. The calyx is also creamy white, very short, with 5 pointed lobes. Fruit: The fruit is a small berry-like drupe about 1/4 inch in diameter, which begins green, then turning reddish and eventually purplish-black. These are edible once they have been boiled. Toxicity: Sap from the pith of stems and the bark itself is very toxic, containing calcium oxalate crystals, viburnic acid and a resin.

Habitat: Canada Elderberry grows from a rhizomatous root system and spreads by suckering. The plant is found in moist sunny spots and in the countryside is frequently seen along the edges of woodlands. There is considerable literature on the uses of this plant. See the lore section below. Names: In the never ending quest for specificity, botanists have recently moved the Sambucus genus into the Adoxaceae plant family, which is a small group of 5 genera of shrubs that have opposite leaves, mostly 5-petaled flowers that produce a small drupe. Minnesota authorities have made this change, USDA has not yet. The genus name, Sambucus, refers to a Greek musical instrument, the sambuke, made from elderwood as the stems can be easily hollowed out to make flutes and other instruments. The elder Pliny makes reference to this. The species name nigra refers to the dark color of the mature berries. The old species and new subspecies name canadensis refers to "of Canada." The plant is also native to Europe and the word "elder" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "aeld." The author names for the plant classification are: 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. Later work on the species was done in 1994 by' R.Bolli' which refers to Richard Bolli, whose background is not available. Comparisons: The first flowers of S. nigra, don't occur until the Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) has already set fruit that is turning red. These two species of Sambucus are the only ones found native in Minnesota.

Canada Elderberry Flower
Canada Elderberry Flower head
Flowers occur through most of the growing season, beginning in May when spring is early. In an average season, late June into July is prime flowering time, however as the photo at lower left, shows, flowers can still appear even as fruit is ripening from the earlier flowers. The plant below right is located in the Upland Garden.
Canada Elderberry August flowers Plant in the Garden
Right: Individual flowers have 5 rounded and spreading petals. There are 5 stamens, with yellow anthers and white filaments, that are erect to somewhat spreading and are placed alternate to the corolla lobes. The stigma is whitish, 5-lobed and lacks a style. flower detail;
Canada Elderberry Leaf
Full leaf
Above: The pinnate leaf structure. The leaf will have 2 to 4 opposite pairs of leaflets plus the terminal leaflet - all depending on the placement on the plant and the age of the plant. Here you see both extremes. Note the lower leaflet in the left photo is multi-lobed.
Canada Elderberry Fruit
Canada Elderberry Fruit
Above: Mature fruit color
Above: Fruit beginning to turn color.
Below: Twiggy stems are a yellow-ish green with warty lenticels. Below: Bark on older stems becomes more gray and fissured. Below: The underside of the leaf is pale in color with fine white hair on the main veins.
twiggy stem

old stem bark

leaf underside

Below: Large specimens can be quite showy with the dark green foliage behind the white flower clusters.

Canada Elderberry  

Notes: Eloise Butler introduced this plant to the Garden on May 24, 1913 with plants obtained from the Park Board Nursery. The plant was listed on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time. Garden Curator Susan Wilkins added additional plants in 2008. It is native to all of the lower 48 states except Washington Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. It is found in Canada from Manitoba eastward. In Minnesota it is found in about half the counties of the state, mostly in the southern half of the state. Mrs. Grieve (Ref. 7) writes that in England "It has been said, with some truth, that our English summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and that it ends when the berries are ripe." This is generally true in the northern parts of the United States also.

Uses and Lore: You will find medicinal uses of all parts of the plant detailed in Hutchins (Ref. 9) and for an extensive history of the plant you are referred to Mrs. Grieve (Ref. 7). Besides the ancient history of the plant, she delves into the uses of all parts of the plant; the fact that the fine-grained wood is excellent for making small thin objects; the references to the plant in a number of Shakespeare's plays; the use of the flowers for making Elder Flower Water; along with a number of old recipes for wine, vinegar, jam and chutney. Fernald (Ref. 6) includes a quote from The American Botanist of 1905, that if some people find elderberry pie unpalatable, it is because of the improper preparation and the author then gives the correct method for making a good pie, "not inferior to huckleberry in flavor."

One recipe found for Elderberry Jelly is as follows (for seven medium size jars) (Similar to many berry recipes): 3 pounds of berries, 2 lemons, 1 box of pectin, 4 1/2 cups of sugar. Crush and heat the berries without adding water. When the juice flows in the pan, simmer for 15 minutes, then squeeze out the juice in a juice bag into a large pot. Add 1/4 cup of lemon juice, mix in the pectin while bringing to a boil. Pour in the sugar while stirring and bring to a boil. Boil for one minute, skimming off any foam, them pour immediately into the jars and seal with paraffin or use the boiling water immersion method in a canner.


References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applies. Distribution principally from Wi, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.  
©2013 Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. All photos and text are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "" 070114