Red Elderberry: A medium-sized, robustly fruiting shrub with creamy-white flower clusters and scarlet fruits set against downy green leaves. Adaptable in gardens; tolerant of wet soils and partial shade, neither of which will diminish fruit set. Provides early nectar for spring pollinators, and the fruits are some of the first to ripen, filling a void for birds in early summer.
“At length we continued our walk through silent and deserted fields and woods, and when, a mile or two from this, I was plucking a basketful of elderberries by a fence, I was surprised to find that I had come upon a flock of young golden robins and bluebirds, apparently feeding on them, flitting before me from bush to bush. Thus, whenever we came to the localities of these fruits, we found the berry-eating birds assembled.” – Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed[i]
Any native shrub which feeds birds is consequential to the integrity of the landscape. One that produces nectaries and pollen-rich flowers, for the benefit of a variety of insects, has additional significance. Flower-laden, precociously fruitful, and bird-full, red elderberry is triply valuable in the wild, or in gardens. When encountered in the wild, in local forests or edge habitats, red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) in dormancy seems an insubstantial shrub. In winter, its pale, mostly unbranched stems appear to sprout from nothing: a gaunt tan-grey warp of stalks springing indeterminately from a hidden root crown. Without leaves these shrubs look frail, half-heartedly woody, and vulnerable. Yet they are habitually chosen by many insects for egg repositories, and overwintering. Look carefully at the stems and you might discover where the soft outer bark has been broken or penetrated, and the spongy, obliging pith has been chewed and reconstituted into egg or larval tenements.[ii]
Red elderberry’s appearance in spring, summer or fall is as anomalous as it is in winter. Red elderberry’s winter mein, its bare-bones appearance (with large buds easily seen on the cane-like stems confers an advantage: ease of recognition. One of the great pleasures of growing a native plant, from seed in a garden, is then discovering it in the wild. There are actually four elderberries found in New England, two species, one of which has two subspecies. The genus as a whole is unmistakable, though flower structures and fruit distinguish the individuals. Red elderberry is found from Newfoundland across Canada to British Columbia and south to California; in the East its range stretches south into the elevations of North Carolina and Tennessee. Common elderberry (Sambucus nigra) reaches as far south as Florida and Mexico.[iii] Most of our understory shrubs and small trees have simple (entire) petiolate leaves. Red elderberry has pinnately compound leaves: leaflets arranged along an elongate axial stem. Pinnate comes from the Latin pinnāt(us), “feathered” or “winged.” The two elderberry species native to Maine, Sambucus racemosa and S. nigra (common or black elderberry) seem unlike the ten or so species of viburnums which comprise the remainder of the small New England Adoxaceae family, although both genuses possess creamy white clusters of flowers of some resemblance.
Red elderberry’s inflorescence, the arrangement of its flowers, is variously described as pyramidal, conical, dome-shaped, or a panicled cyme. Whatever the adjective or botanical designation, the large, showy flower cluster teems with insects when in bloom. The odor of red elderberry flowers (another common name is stinking elderberry), its nectar, and highly nutritious pollen attract many ants, bees and wasps (Hymenoptera) and flies (Diptera). Flowering occurs in late spring or early summer, earlier than that of most associated woodland shrubs, including the common elderberry.
Fruit appears early as well. The fruits, called drupes, ripen in synchrony, that is, all at once, and tempt as much of a crowd as the flowers do. A fruiting red elderberry is exotic-looking with its thin arched stems and glistering scarlet fruit, set above the fine green geometry of its leaves.
Red elderberry fruits feed up to fifty species of passerine birds and six species of game birds.[iv] Frugivorous birds, squirrels, white-footed mice, raccoons, black bears and browsing ungulates (deer and moose) all partake. Porcupines, deer, grouse and snowshoe hares eat the shrub’s buds and bark in winter: a wildlife all-season smorgasbord despite the cyanogenic glycosides present in every part of the plant. Red elderberries can be cooked and eaten by humans; they were part of the diet and pharmacopoeia of Native Americans. However, palatability and edibility are subjective terms in foraging, and caution applies here. Most other mammals have digestive enzymes that allow safe absorption of chemicals and toxins poisonous to humans. Herbivores have lengthy intestines that aid digestion of problematic forage (deer intestines may be fifteen times as long as their bodies)[v].
The ecological contribution of red elderberry is straightforward and significant. Even though red elderberry is a favorite wildlife browse, its resprouting facility and shade tolerance make the shrub garden-worthy. Mixed with native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), or, in wetter sites, buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata), red elderberry can be part of an attractive, productive hedgerow. Planting in numbers is preferable when landscaping for wildlife. Several of one species, mixed with another species, is optimal. A hedgerow of shrubs and small trees, with similar cultural requirements, but different flowering and fruiting times, provides the greatest sustenance (food and shelter) for pollinating insects and for birds. Red elderberry’s colonizing habit stabilizes soil and curbs erosion on slopes, or in seasonally flooded areas. Red elderberry is considered a facultative wetland species meaning it can live in wetter than normal sites (as opposed to an obligate wetland species that must have wet conditions to survive). Red elderberries along streams provide shade for a long season; the cooling effect of riparian shade is crucial to some native fish species. Red elderberry is also tolerant of heavy metals in soil and has been used to rehabilitate disturbed ground. Seeds may lie dormant for many years in soil or leaf litter and still be viable. Dormancy is broken by heat (fires), mammalian digestion, or stratification (temperature cycling).
Collected red elderberry seeds germinate readily after cold-stratification, that is if ripe fruit can be harvested before a mob of songbirds consumes the entire crop.
By Pamela Johnson
[i] Thoreau, Henry David. 1993. Faith in a Seed. Washington, D. C.: Island Press.
[ii] Eastman, John. Forest and Thicket. 1992. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole. Red elderberry hosts elder borers (Desmocerus palliatus), small carpenter bees (Ceratina sp.), spider wasps (Pompilidae) and potter wasps (Eumenes fraternus) Flower crab spiders (Misumena vatia) await small insect prey on red elderberry flowers; in turn, they may be caught by spider wasps who build egg chambers in the shrub’s pithy canes.
[iii] Campbell, Christopher S. and Fay Hyland. 1977. Winter Keys to Woody Plants of Maine. Orono, Maine: Univ. of ME at Orono Press. An excellent illustrated guide to winter identification of Maine trees and shrubs.
[iv]Fryer, Janet L. 2008. Sambucus racemosa. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2015, January 23].
[v] Gould, Stephen Jay. 1987. An Urchin in the Storm. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.