Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 506 Sambucus canadensis

Common Names: American elder, elderberry, sweet elder Family: Caprifoliaceae (honeysuckle Family)
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These elderberries will soon make a delicious snack for hungry birds.


American elder, or elderberry, is a bushy, multi-stemmed, wide spreading shrub with deciduous compound leaves. It gets 10-15 ft (25.4-38.1 m) tall with a similar spread, and its brittle branches are pithy and soft. Elderberry often forms dense thickets, a result of suckering from the roots. The leaves are opposite, pinnately compound (featherlike), and up to a foot long. There are 5, 7 or 9 saw toothed leaflets, each about 2-6 in (5.1-15.2 cm) long. The crushed foliage has an unpleasant smell. The twigs have wartlike corky lenticels on the outside and a spongy white pith on the inside. The star shaped white flowers are tiny, but arranged in showy sprays up to 10 in (25.4 cm) across. The flat-topped circular flower clusters (cymes, actually) can be very abundant, often covering the whole plant.

In most regions, elderberry flowers are produced throughout the spring and summer, but in much of Florida there are some elderberries in bloom every month of the year. Elderberry is normally deciduous, but in central and south Florida they may have leaves all year round. Where they are deciduous, elderberries put on a colorful autumn display of yellows, oranges and reds.

The edible fruits are shiny blue-black drupes with 3-5 stony seeds. They are 1/8 - 1/4 in (0.3-0.6 cm) in diameter. Several commercially available cultivars have been selected for their superior flowers and/or large flavorful berries. 'Aurea' has red berries and golden-yellow foliage. 'Maxima' has flower clusters to 15 in (38 cm) across. 'Laciniata' is smaller growing to just 8 ft (2.4 m) with attractive, deeply dissected leaves. Several pomological cultivars with larger berries have been developed for fruit production, including 'Adams No. 1', 'Johns', and 'York', which has the largest berries of any cultivated elderberry.

American elder flowers
Huge flower clusters adorn American elder throughout the spring and summer but in frostfree areas like South Florida remains evergreen and perpetually abloom.


American elder, Sambucus canadensis, is native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia to Florida, and west to Minnesota and Texas, where it occurs in rich soils along riverbanks and forest edges. Song birds spread the seeds and dense stands of elderberry are commonly seen along highways and fence rows, under utility lines, and at the edges of clearings. The American elders in southern Florida were formerly classified as a distinct species, Sambucus simpsonii.


American elder does well in acidic or alkaline soils. It can be pruned back hard to keep it in bounds. If growing selected clones for the fruit, you need to plant at least two different cultivars for cross pollination. Light: Does best in full sun, but can tolerate partial sun. Moisture: Does best in moist soils, but is drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 11. Propagation: Elderberry can be grown from seed or from cuttings. Take mature tip cuttings in winter or green-wood cuttings in spring and root with bottom heat. It's also possible to separate small sucker plants from the parent plant and transplant those.


American elder can be a very attractive shrub in bloom, but it tends to be gangly and unkempt, and it keeps sending up new suckers. It responds well to pruning, though, and can be kept in a manageable size and shape with proper vigilance. With its wide clusters of shiny blue-black berries, elderberry is very attractive in fruit, too, but the birds may eat the berries before you're done appreciating them! American elder is best in the naturalized or wildlife garden, in wet areas of the landscape, and along roads. A large mass of American elders, whether in bloom, in fruit, or even just decked out in their pretty lacy foliage, makes a very ornamental planting. American elder can be coppiced - cut nearly to the ground - to force more bushiness to make a visual screen.

Unpruned, elderberry will grow tall graceful stems each topped with flower clusters.

The flowers of American elder are used to make elderflower water which is used in perfumes and confectioneries. Raw elderberries have an unpleasant taste and contain small amounts of poisonous alkaloids. Cooking destroys the alkaloids and improves the taste. (The dried berries are said to be good to eat raw, however.) Cooked elderberries are made into pies, jellies, and of course, elderberry wine. Harvest entire clusters of fruit, strip from the stems, simmer with a little water for 15 minutes, squeeze out the juice in a cheesecloth jelly bag, and prepare jelly or wine as you would with any other fruit juice. The flowers are also edible, and used in jams, jellies and are the basis of elderflower fritters. Dip entire clusters of blossoms in flour and fry. A delightful, pale wine resembling champagne is also made from the flowers.


Native Americans made much use of the American elder. They used the bark, flowers and fruits for medicines; they made cakes, puddings and breads from the berries; and they made nonalcoholic and alcoholic drinks from the berries. Elderberries have more vitamin C per unit weight than oranges or tomatoes. Young boys of not-too-long-ago knew that the pithy stems of American elder are easily whittled hollow to make blow guns and whistles. The berries are relished by no fewer that 50 kinds of birds.

Steve Christman 1/26/98; updated 8/21/00, 10/26/03

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Sambucus species profiled on Floridata:

Sambucus canadensis

( American elder, elderberry, sweet elder )

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