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American Elderberry Sambucus canadensis

Previously known as:

  • Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis
Phonetic Spelling
sam-BOO-kus kan-ah-DEN-sis
This plant has low severity poison characteristics.
See below
Description

American elderberry is a woody, deciduous shrub or small tree, 5 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide, that is native to North America, Venezuela, and Brazil. It is a member of the Adoxaceae (muskroot) family. It can be found in all areas of North Carolina along streams, marshes, moist forests, and disturbed areas. The genus name may be derived from sambuco, the Italian word for the elder bush. 

American elderberry tolerates a wide variety of wet to dry soils but prefers rich, moist, slightly acidic soil in sun to partial shade. Plants will spread by root sucker and will form thickets if the suckers are not removed. In summer, small white flowers are borne in dense clusters. Flowers are followed by a purple-black drupe that is produced in drooping clusters from late summer to fall. The drupe is an edible fruit and when cooked can be used in pies, pancakes, and jellies. Elderberry flowers and fruits are used in winemaking. Wildlife also enjoys the fruits, and the arching branches provide a habitat for nesting birds. 

Use this plant in naturalized areas, as a hedge, in a woodland, or along streams and ponds. It is a good addition to butterfly, edible, native, pollinator, or rain gardens. It is effective erosion control in moist sites. Due to the plants suckering and unkempt appearance, it is best not to use this shrub or tree in the home landscape. 

Seasons of Interest:

Bark: Winter   Bloom:  Late Spring or Early Summer   Foliage:  Summer and Fall    Fruits:  Late Summer and Early Fall

Quick ID Hints:

  • deciduous shrub or small tree, multi-stemmed, measuring 5 to 12 feet tall and is usually wider than it is tall
  • yellowish-gray to grayish-brown bark with a white pith
  • pinnately compound leaves with 5 to 11 leaflets (usually 7), leaves are 2 to 6 inches long, 0.5 to 2.5 inches wide, and have sharply serrated margins
  • profuse blooms of fragrant, creamy-white flowers that appear as flat-topped or rounded clusters
  • fruits are clusters of rounded, purplish-black drupes

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems: It has some susceptibility to canker, powdery mildew, leaf spot, borers, spider mites, and aphids. Its branches are susceptible to damage from high winds and heavy snow or ice in winter. It can be weedy. 

VIDEO created by Grant L. Thompson for “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines for Landscaping” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University.

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Aurea'
  • 'Rubra'
'Aurea', 'Rubra'
Tags:
#fragrant#deciduous#small tree#poisonous#rain garden#wildlife plant#native tree#weedy#native shrub#riparian#wetlands#erosion control#showy fruits#food source wildlife#NC native#dye plant#playground plant#edible garden#food source summer#food source herbage#food source nectar#food source pollen#bird friendly#food source soft mast fruit#butterfly friendly#Audubon#purple dye plant#winter damage#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Aurea'
  • 'Rubra'
'Aurea', 'Rubra'
Tags:
#fragrant#deciduous#small tree#poisonous#rain garden#wildlife plant#native tree#weedy#native shrub#riparian#wetlands#erosion control#showy fruits#food source wildlife#NC native#dye plant#playground plant#edible garden#food source summer#food source herbage#food source nectar#food source pollen#bird friendly#food source soft mast fruit#butterfly friendly#Audubon#purple dye plant#winter damage#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Sambucus
    Species:
    canadensis
    Family:
    Adoxaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    The twigs and fruit have been used to create dyes for basketry. Stems used to make flutes and whistles.
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    North America, Venezuela and Brazil
    Distribution:
    USA: AL , AR , AZ , CA , CO , CT , DC , DE , FL , GA , HI , IA , IL , IN , KS , KY , LA , MA , MD , ME , MI , MN , MO , MS , MT , NC , ND , NE , NH , NJ , NM , NY , OH , OK , PA , RI , SC , SD , TN , TX , VA , VT , WI , WV , WY Canada: MB , NB , NS , PE , QC
    Fire Risk Rating:
    medium flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    Butterflies and other insects are attracted to the blooms. Its fruits are eaten by mammals and many species of songbirds. It makes an excellent nesting site for birds and provides cover for quail and pheasants. Deer browse the leaves, twigs and fruit.
    Play Value:
    Attracts Pollinators
    Edible fruit
    Wildlife Cover/Habitat
    Wildlife Food Source
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    Resistant to heat, drought, and soil compaction.
    Edibility:
    Cooked berries are edible and can be used in pies, pancakes, and jellies; flowers and fruits used in winemaking, marmalade, yogurt, and desserts.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 5 ft. 0 in. - 12 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 6 ft. 0 in. - 12 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Edible
    Native Plant
    Poisonous
    Shrub
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Arching
    Broad
    Multi-stemmed
    Open
    Rounded
    Spreading
    Growth Rate:
    Medium
    Maintenance:
    Medium
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    High Organic Matter
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasionally Wet
    Available Space To Plant:
    6-feet-12 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    4a, 4b, 5b, 5a, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8b, 8a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Black
    Purple/Lavender
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Edible
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Summer
    Fruit Type:
    Drupe
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    The fruits are clusters of rounded, edible, purplish-black drupes. They are on display from August to September. Each berry is 1/4 inch across, contains 3-5 seeds, and is borne in large drooping clusters. The fruits are used to make jellies and wine.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Cream/Tan
    White
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Cyme
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Edible
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Summer
    Flower Shape:
    Star
    Flower Petals:
    6 petals/rays
    Flower Size:
    < 1 inch
    Flower Description:
    Many 1/4 inch fragrant creamy-white flowers appear in 4-10-inch flat-topped to rounded clusters. They bloom profusely in June. Blooms on second-year wood.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Leaf Type:
    Compound (Pinnately , Bipinnately, Palmately)
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Opposite
    Leaf Shape:
    Elliptical
    Lanceolate
    Leaf Margin:
    Serrate
    Hairs Present:
    No
    Leaf Length:
    3-6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Description:
    Bright green compound leaves have 5 to 11 leaflets, but usually there are 7. The leaflets are opposite and have a terminal leaflet. They are oval to lance-shaped and measure 2 to 6 inches long and 0.5 to 2.5 inches wide, with sharp serrated margins. They are abruptly narrowed at the tip with a broadly wedge-shaped base. Fall foliage color is yellow.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Light Brown
    Light Gray
    Surface/Attachment:
    Smooth
    Bark Description:
    The bark is yellowish gray to a light grayish brown and has a warty appearance from scattered short lenticels.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gray/Silver
    Green
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Leaf Scar Shape:
    C-shaped, Cresent shaped
    Stem Surface:
    Smooth (glabrous)
    Stem Description:
    Young woody branches are light grayish brown with scattered lenticels. Young shoots are light green. The pith is white.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Naturalized Area
    Pond
    Riparian
    Woodland
    Landscape Theme:
    Butterfly Garden
    Edible Garden
    Native Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Rain Garden
    Design Feature:
    Barrier
    Flowering Tree
    Hedge
    Small Tree
    Attracts:
    Butterflies
    Hummingbirds
    Pollinators
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Erosion
    Wet Soil
    Problems:
    Poisonous to Humans
    Problem for Horses
    Weak Wood
    Weedy
  • Poisonous to Humans:
    Poison Severity:
    Low
    Poison Symptoms:
    Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, coma
    Poison Toxic Principle:
    Cyanogenic glycoside and alkaloid
    Causes Contact Dermatitis:
    No
    Poison Part:
    Fruits
    Leaves
    Roots
    Stems