Sambucus racemosa

Red Elderberry

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods



  • Sambucus, from the Greek sambuca, a stringed instrument supposed to have been made from elder wood.
  • racemosa, from the Latin racemus, the stalk of or a cluster of a bunch of grapes, "with racemes"
  • Common Name, from the color of the fruit
  • Other common names include: Red Elder, Scarlet Elder, Black Elderberry, Blackbead Elder, Mountain Elder, Stinking Elderberry, Stinking Elder, Red Berried Elder, Redberry Elder, sureau rouge, Bore Tree, Boutry, Bunchberry Elder, Blackfruit Elderberry


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Asteridae
        • Order Dipsacales
          • Family Caprifoliaceae, the Honeysuckles, with Diervilla (Bush Honeysuckles), Linnaea (Twinflower), Lonicera (True Honeysuckles), Symphoricarpos (Snowberries), and Viburnum (Viburnums)
            • Genus Sambucus, the Elders
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 35326
  • Also known as Sambucus pubens, Sambucus callicarpa, Sambucus microbotrys, Sambucus melanocarpa, Sambucus acuminata, Sambucus leiosperma, Sambucus pubens var. arborescens
  • Sambucus racemosa is the designation of a circumboreal species. The American plants are considered as subspecies pubens by many authorities, but others believe they should be recognized as a separate species and use the designation Sambucus pubens.
  • Sambucus is a genus with much hybridization and backcrossing.



  • A deciduous shrub from 20" to 20' in height.
  • Leaves large, opposite, compound with five to nine leaflets.
  • Stems: Young twigs soft and pithy, but the wood is quite hard. The stems may have a rank odor if bruised.
  • Flowers creamy white in pyramidal heads.
  • Fruits round, berrylike drupes with two to four seeds; usually bright red, although that of var. melanocarpa are black.
  • Northwoods variety leucocarpa is more or less stoloniferous, 3'-10' tall, and usually has red fruit. New stems glaucus.


  • Across North America from Newfoundland to Alaska. Restricted to moist, cool sites in the south, extending into California in the coastal mountains, Arizona and New Mexico in the Rockies, and Georgia and Tennessee in the Appalachian highlands.
  • Northwoods variety leucocarpa extends from SE British Columbia, Montana, and South Dakota east through Canada to Newfoundland and the NE United States; also south into the Great Lakes states and through the Appalachian Mountains into Georgia and Tennessee.


  • Not well adapted to warm climates and in the southern part of its range is found in cooler uplands, swamps, and along cool drainages. Where found on upland sites few plants are well scattered through the forest.
  • Soils: Prefers rich rocky soils with ample moisture; will tolerate saturated soils (although not as well as Sambuca canadensis). Prefers soils with a pH of 5.0 to 8.0.
  • In deciduous forests of aspen may be a dominant part of a long-lived climax forest. If conifers gain dominance, it disappears along with other successional species.
  • Shade tolerant or partially shade tolerant. In forests with dense shade chiefly found in openings with higher light levels. Where it grows under a canopy, it develops poorly, is lower height, and fruits sparingly, if at all.
  • Restricted to a successional role in dense, coniferous forest but could be part of a climax deciduous forest community. May occur as an understory dominant in Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) stands.


  • Can resprout from rhizomes or rootcrowns following fire. Fire generally kills aboveground parts which resprout. Sprouting can occur from dormant buds on the stems following a very light fire. If stem buds are killed in a higher severity fire, sprouting can occur from rhizome or rootcrown buds, depending on the variety. A very severe fire might expose and kill the rhizome or rootcrown and thus the plant.
  • Stores seed in seed banks; viable seeds can germinate following fire or other disturbance even if plants are absent from the prefire stand. Fire also scarifies buried seed, and germination usually occurs the first growing season following the fire.
  • All varieties can survive either by sprouting from rootcrowns or rhizomes, or by colonizing a site from seed stored in seed banks.
  • Repeated fires may reduce elderberries.


  • Trees: White Pine (Pinus strobus), Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Shrubs: Moose Maple (Acer spicatum), Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), American Fly Honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis)
  • Herbs:
  • Ground Covers:
  • Mammals: Berries food for rabbits, squirrels, foxes, woodchucks, chipmunks, ground squirrels, woodrats, and mice. Var. leucocarpa is heavily browsed by deer and moose.
  • Birds: Elderberries provide valuable nesting and perching habitat, and their fruit provides food for many species of birds including bluebirds, woodpeckers, grosbeaks, veeries, warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, scarlet tanager, American crow, grouse, and hummingbirds who visit flowers for nectar.


  • The name Sambucus is derived from the Greek sambuca which was a stringed instrument supposed to have been made from elder wood.
  • The hollow stems have been fashioned into flutes and blowguns.
  • The wood is hard and has been used for combs, spindles, and pegs.


  • Good ornamentals; colorful fruit attracts birds.
  • Fruit not palatable to humans and may be slightly poisonous, although it is harmless when cooked. Sambucus racemosa ssp. pubens contains a cyanogenetic glycoside and an alkaloid that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal pain. The berries contain very little of these substances, the stems contain moderate amounts, and the roots contain enough to cause death to hogs. Medical uses have been made of all parts.
  • Dyes can be made from the bark, fruit, and stems, and an insecticide from the dried leaves.


  • Small, perfect flowers are pollinated by insects, usually resulting in three nutlets in a fleshy, edible drupe. There are good seed crops most years, and seeds are dispersed by birds and other animals that eat the fruit. Plants are able to reproduce by 3 to 5 years of age.
  • Seeds have a hard seed coat and dormant embryos that delay germination, but heat treatment or sulfuric acid scarification and stratification can hasten germination. Without treatment, germination of seedlings may be delayed for 2 or more years after planting.
  • Regenerates vegetatively from sprouts, rhizome suckers, and layering. Living stems growing from the rhizome suppress rhizome bud growth. Seedlings form a thickened crown with buds which can become a rhizome by the third year.


  • By seed, following cold stratification.
  • Can be propagated by cuttings, either using hardwood cuttings started in the winter or softwood cuttings during the spring or summer. Cuttings of rhizomes with stems can also be transplanted.


  • Useful in stabilizing soil and controlling erosion on moist sites. Its growth on moderate and gentle slopes is good, and its growth on steep slopes is fair.


Boreal border
Last updated on 9 August 1999