Sambucus canadensis L.

Common Elderberry


CC = 2
CW = 0
MOC = 64

© SRTurner

Family - Caprifoliaceae

Habit - Shrubs or small trees 1-8 m tall, usually with stout, spreading rootstocks and suckering from the roots.

Stems - Ascending to erect, branching, multiple from base. Bark yellowish brown, tight, lacking ridges but appearing roughened or warty. Twigs 3-5 mm thick, glabrous, the pith white.

Sambucus_canadensis_stem.jpg Stem and node.

© SRTurner

Leaves - Opposite, pinnately compound. Petioles 3-7 cm long, glabrous except in the ventral groove, where densely pubescent with minute, scurfy hairs. Petiolules to 5 mm. Leaflets usually 7-9 per leaf, 5-12 cm long, 2-6 cm wide, lanceolate to narrowly oblong or elliptic, the upper surface glabrous, the undersurface usually minutely hairy along the veins, rarely also hairy on the tissue between the veins, the margins crenate-serrate.

Sambucus_canadensis_leaf1.jpg Leaf.

© SRTurner

Sambucus_canadensis_leaflet1.jpg Leaflet, adaxial.

© SRTurner

Sambucus_canadensis_leaflet2.jpg Leaflet, abaxial.

© SRTurner

Sambucus_canadensis_leaflet2a.jpg Leaflet abaxial surface.

© SRTurner

Inflorescence - Terminal compound cymes, more or less flat-topped, sometimes domed, lacking an elongate main axis, instead with usually 5 primary branches (these repeatedly branched).

Sambucus_canadensis_inflorescence1.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Sambucus_canadensis_inflorescence2.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Flowers - Corolla white, 5-lobed, glabrous, 3-5 broad. Lobes 2.2 mm long, 2 mm broad, rounded to emarginate at apex. Stamens 5, adnate at base of corolla tube, alternating with corolla lobes, erect to spreading. Filaments white, glabrous, 2.4 mm long. Anthers yellow, 0.5mm long. Stigma 5-lobed, capitate. Ovary inferior, 4-locular.

Sambucus_canadensis_flowers1.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Sambucus_canadensis_flowers2.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Sambucus_canadensis_calyces.jpg Calyces (difficult to discern due to color match with corollas).

© SRTurner

Fruits - Drupes 4-6 mm in diameter, globose, purplish black (rarely red), edible in moderation, and palatable, with a pleasant flavor. Seedlike nutlets (also called pyrenes or stones) 3-5, 2.5-3.0 mm long, more or less obovate to elliptic in outline, somewhat flattened or bluntly 3-angled, the surface roughened with irregular, fine cross-wrinkles or blunt, low ridges, yellowish brown to brownish yellow.

Sambucus_canadensis_fruits.jpg Immature and maturing fruits.

© SRTurner

Flowering - May - July.

Habitat - Bottomland and mesic forests, streambanks, pond margins, prairies, pastures, fields, gardens, railroads, roadsides, and moist disturbed areas.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - None close.

Other info. - This species is common across most of Missouri, and occurs across the eastern half of the continental U.S. and into Canada. It generally favors moist areas. It is easily recognized by its pinnately compound leaves on stout, fleshy stems and large inflorescences of small white flowers. A thriving plant will produce numerous inflorescences, and these can sometimes reach nearly a foot in diameter.

When at anthesis, elderberry plants will perfume the nearby air, as the flowers are quite fragrant. Inflorescences can be battered and deep fried into fritters, and flowers added to muffins or used to make tea. The ripe, nearly black fruits are edible in small quantities, but large amounts are mildly toxic. Cooking destroys the toxins, and the "berries" are thus a popular fruit for jams and preserves. When gathering fruits for this purpose, humans must compete with wildlife, which also relish the berries. The pith of the stems is large, soft, and easily removed, and my dad tells childhood stories of making flutes from stems of a similar European species. Avoid ingesting the sap, as it is toxic.

Some botanists consider this species a variant (ssp. canadensis) of the European S. nigra.

There is no evidence to support the persistent rumor that the fathers of medieval English knights smelled of elderberries.

Photographs taken at Busch Wildlife Area, St. Charles County, MO, 6-12-2009, Glassberg Conservation Area, Jefferson County, MO, 8-5-2020, Klondike County Park, St. Charles County, MO, 6-10-2022, and near Labadie, Franklin County, MO, 6-13-2022 (SRTurner).