Canada Elderberry is 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 corymbs (flat-topped clusters), the cluster being dense and itself somewhat flat-topped, but quite wide - up to 8+ inches. Each corymb of the cluster individually stalked flowers, stalks of variable length so as to produce the flat top.
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 appears to lack a style, but it has actually withered away early. 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. Each drupe contains a few small seeds.
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. It bloom late compared to most shrubs and new blooms can sometimes be seen in August in central Minnesota even when fruit is setting on the earlier blooms.
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 - such as the Viburnums. Minnesota authorities have made this change, USDA has not yet. It used to be in the Caprifoliaceae family (Honeysuckle). 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 means 'black' or 'dark' and 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 refers to Richard Bolli, (b. 1957) Swiss born Botanist, Professor of Botany at Harvard University. His major work is the Revision of the Genus Sambucus published in 1994. In earlier years this species was classified Sambucus canadensis L.; however, in Bolli's revision of the genus that species and 5 others were placed together as subspecies of S. nigra in the Adoxaceae family. As noted above, some authorities do not yet agree and have left the plant in its old family - the Honeysuckle (Caprifoliaceae).
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.
Above: The inflorescence is a cluster of corymbs (flat-topped clusters), the cluster being dense and itself somewhat flat-topped, but quite wide - up to 8+ inches.
Below: 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 appears to be missing the style which withers away very early.
Below: 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 1st photo shows, flowers can still appear even as fruit is ripening from the earlier flowers. The plant in the 2nd photo is located in the Upland Garden.
Below: 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 1st photo is multi-lobed.
Below: 1st photo - Mature fruit color. 2nd photo - Fruit beginning to turn color.
Below: 1st photo - Twiggy stems are a yellow-ish green with warty lenticels. 2nd photo - Bark on older stems becomes more gray and fissured. 3rd photo - The underside of the leaf is pale in color with fine white hair on the main veins.
Below: A good size shrub loaded with ripe fruit in August.
Notes: Eloise Butler introduced Canada Elderberry to the Garden on May 24, 1913 with plants obtained from the Park Board Nursery. She planted again in Oct. 1917. Canada Elderberry 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 or only a very small amount. 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 rolling boil. Pour in the sugar while stirring and bring to a rolling boil. Boil for one minute, remove from heat, skimming off any foam with a metal spoon, them pour immediately into the jars and seal with paraffin or use the boiling water immersion method in a canner. [A little butter in the mix cuts down the amount of foaming in most berry recipes]
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"