Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: Elderberry1

Edward F. Gilman, Dennis G. Watson, Ryan W. Klein, Andrew K. Koeser, Deborah R. Hilbert, and Drew C. McLean 2

Introduction

A fast-growing deciduous shrub, elderberry suckers quite easily and is often seen as a broad, spreading, multi-stemmed plant with bright green, pinnately compound, 6- to 10-inch-long leaves arranged along the arching branches. But it can be effectively pruned into a nice, small, single or multi-stemmed, small, flowering tree but needs regular pruning to remove suckers growing from the base of the plant. In early summer (northern part of its range) or sporadically all year long (in USDA hardiness zones 9 and 10), elderberry is literally smothered with 6- to 10-inch-wide clusters of yellowish-white blooms. These are followed by a multitude of small, dark purple berries which are quite popular with birds, and can be used in pies, jellies, or fermented to make a wine. Some reference books refer to Sambucus simpsonii as a separate species, but this is probably a southern extension of Sambucus canadensis.

Figure 1. Full Form—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry
Figure 1.  Full Form—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry
Credit: Ed Gilman, UF/IFAS

General Information

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis

Pronunciation: sam-BEW-kuss kan-uh-DEN-sis

Common name(s): elderberry, American elder, common elder

Family: Adoxaceae

USDA hardiness zones: 4A through 10B (Figure 2)

Origin: native to the eastern half of the United States and southeastern Canada

UF/IFAS Invasive Assessment Status: weedy native

Uses: container or planter; reclamation; trained as a standard; deck or patio; specimen

Figure 2. Range
Figure 2.  Range

Description

Height: 5 to 12 feet, and thicket-forming

Spread: 6 to 10 feet

Crown uniformity: irregular

Crown shape: round

Crown density: open

Growth rate: moderate

Texture: fine

Foliage

Leaf arrangement: opposite/subopposite

Leaf type: odd-pinnately compound; made up of 7 to 11 leaflets

Leaf margin: serrate

Leaf shape: elliptic (oval), lanceolate

Leaf venation: pinnate

Leaf type and persistence: deciduous

Leaf blade length: 6 to 10 inches; leaflets are 2 to 6 inches

Leaf color: dark green on top, paler green underneath

Fall color: yellow

Fall characteristic: not showy

Figure 3. Leaf—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry
Figure 3.  Leaf—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry

Flower

Flower color: white

Flower characteristics: showy; emerge in clusters on flat-topped cymes

Flowering: late spring to early summer

Figure 4. Flower—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry
Figure 4.  Flower—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry

Fruit

Fruit shape: round

Fruit length: ¼ inch

Fruit covering: fleshy drupe

Fruit color: green to purplish black

Fruit characteristics: attracts birds; showy; fruit/leaves not a litter problem

Fruiting: mid to late summer

Figure 5. Fruit—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry
Figure 5.  Fruit—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry

Trunk and Branches

Trunk/branches: branches droop; not showy; typically multi-trunked; no thorns

Bark: brown, smooth, and warty, becoming rough and shallowly furrowed with age

Pruning requirement: needed for strong structure

Breakage: susceptible to breakage

Current year twig color: gray

Current year twig thickness: thick

Wood specific gravity: unknown

Figure 6. Bark—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry
Figure 6.  Bark—Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis: elderberry
Credit: Gitta Hasing

Culture

Light requirement: full sun to partial shade

Soil tolerances: clay; sand; loam; alkaline; acidic; wet soil; well-drained

Drought tolerance: moderate

Aerosol salt tolerance: low

Other

Roots: not a problem

Winter interest: no

Outstanding tree: no

Ozone sensitivity: sensitive

Verticillium wilt susceptibility: susceptible

Pest resistance: resistant to pests/diseases

Use and Management

Ideal for use in naturalized landscapes where it will tolerate acid or alkaline soil and even some drought, elderberry performs best in full sun on moist to wet, fertile soils. Plant it in the shrub border or locate it next to the patio for a wonderful flower display. The plant is often overlooked by the trade perhaps because it is so commonly found in and along the woods, but it has a place in the garden, although its rather random habit may not make it popular in the commercial landscape. Requires pruning to create a neat small tree.

A few cultivars include: 'Acutiloba', leaflets very deeply divided, a nice fine-textured plant; 'Aurea', bright red fruit, yellow leaves; 'Adams', fruits in dense, large clusters, excellent for baking. There are a variety of other very attractive species.

Propagation is by seed or cuttings.

Pests

Borers, occasional leaf-chewing insects, may infest this tree.

Diseases

Elderberry can be infected by cankers, leaf spots, powdery mildew.

References

Koeser, A. K., Hasing, G., Friedman, M. H., and Irving, R. B. 2015. Trees: North & Central Florida. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Koeser, A.K., Friedman, M.H., Hasing, G., Finley, H., Schelb, J. 2017. Trees: South Florida and the Keys. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Footnotes

1. This document is ENH-736, one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date November 1993. Revised December 2006 and December 2018. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu for the currently supported version of this publication.
2. Edward F. Gilman, professor emeritus, Environmental Horticulture Department; Dennis G. Watson, former associate professor, Agricultural Engineering Department; Ryan W. Klein, graduate assistant, Environmental Horticulture Department; Andrew K. Koeser, assistant professor, Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center; Deborah R. Hilbert, graduate assistant, Environmental Horticulture Department, GCREC; and Drew C. McLean, biological scientist, Environmental Horticulture Department, GCREC; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #ENH-736

Date: 2019-03-27
Southern Trees Fact Sheets

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Contacts

  • Andrew Koeser