Red Elderberry is a common native shrub of the Minnesota woods, growing on twiggy branching stems 6 to 12 feet high in our area. Young bark is reddish-gray to greenish-gray with raised lenticels and frequently hairy. Older stems are mostly gray with some red showing through and the lenticles take on a warty appearance. The pith is spongy. Dead branch stubs are frequently present.
The leaves are opposite and form very early in Spring, with 5 to 7 lance-shaped leaflets making up the pinnately compound leaf. Margins of the leaflets are serrate, the tips are pointed and the base is often unequal. The upper side is dark green, the underside paler and usually with fine hair and longer hair on the veins. Leaf stalks and central rachis of the leaf are usually reddish-brown. The buds are pinkish before opening.
The inflorescence is an upright domed (or pyramidal shaped) compact cluster of stalked flowers, appearing at the ends of the twigs of the prior year's growth.
Flowers: The small whitish flowers are fragrant and perfect. The calyx is very small with 5 pointed lobes. The corolla is formed of 5 white spreading to recurved petals which are usually fully recurved when the flower is receptive to pollination. The five stamens spread outward, have white filaments and yellow anthers. In the center is the greenish ovary with the stigma of the style 3-lobed. The flower buds are also pinkish before opening.
Fruit: Fertile flowers mature quite early into small red berry-like drupes which are acidic, but well liked by the birds. Each drupe usually contains 3 seeds. The seeds are conical shaped with one side flat. The drupes are unpalatable to humans until they are cooked and even then most people will still find them too bitter. Even in small quantities they may cause intestinal upsets.
Habitat: Red Elderberry grows best in sunny moist locations. It adapts to partial shade, but full shade will result in a leggy plant that flowers poorly. S. racemosa is found in many places in the Woodland Garden and more shady spots of the Upland Garden.
Names: In the never ending quest for specificity, botanists have recently moved the Sambucus genus into the Adoxaceae plant family, which is a small group of 5 genera of shrubs that have opposite leaves, mostly 5-petaled flowers that produce a small drupe - such as the Viburnums. Minnesota authorities have made this change, USDA has not yet. The genus name, Sambucus, refers to a Greek musical instrument, the sambuke, made from elderwood as the stems can be easily hollowed out to make flutes and other instruments. The elder Pliny makes reference to this. The species racemosa, means 'having a raceme' although the flower cluster with several branches is more like a cyme.
The author name for the plant description from 1753 - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. An older classification for this plant used by Linnaeus was Sambucus pubens L. As noted above, some authorities do not yet agree with the reclassification of the elderberries by Richard Bolli in 1994 and have left the plant in its old family - the Honeysuckle (Caprifoliaceae).
Comparisons: The berries of Red Elderberry are already red before the larger Canada Elderberry, S. nigra, begins blooming. These two species of Sambucus are the only ones found native in Minnesota.
Above: A full size shrub and the inflorescence which has several branches of stalked flowers.
Below: 1st photo - Flowers of early May. Note the pinnately compound leaf. 2nd photo - Note the unequal bases of the leaflets. 3rd photo - Opening leaf bud of early April. Buds are pinkish before opening.
Below: Detail of the individual flowers - Petals are reflexed in this photo, stamens spread outward, in the center is the round greenish ovary with the 3 lobed stigma.
Below - Stem variations of bark color: 1st photo - older bark, 2nd and 3rd photos - younger bark - youngest 3rd photo. 4th photo - an old stem - mostly gray with red showing in vertical ridges.
Below: 1st photo - Emerging flower buds late-April. 2nd photo - Flower in full bloom- May. 3rd photo - Developed Fruit in Late June
Below: 1st photo - Each small drupe contains 3 conical seeds, flat on one side. 2nd photo - The underside of the leaf is softly hairy with longer hair on the veins.
Below: 1st photo - Developed fruit in mid-July. Note the many dead branch stubs. 2nd photo - Emerging leaves in mid-April
Below: Plants can grow quite large when given full sun as this specimen at 12 feet tall shows.
Notes: Red Elderberry is indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler catalogued it on April 29, 1907 (as S. racemosa). She also planted some specimens on Oct. 3, 1909 with plants obtained from near the West Arm of Lake Minnetonka; on April 18, 1912 from Groveland Park. Gardener Cary George added plants in 1989. Garden Curator Susan Wilkins added additional plants in 2008, '12, and '15. It is native to most counties of Minnesota except those along the western border - the drier, un-wooded section of the state. In North America it is found in all the lower Canadian Provinces and most the U.S. except NE, KS, OK, TX, AR, MS, AL, FL, SC and LA.
Harrington (Ref. #9) reports that some American Indian tribes of the West found the drupes palatable but that may be to local differences in the plants. Birds will eat them but the elderberry used for wines, jams and jellies is the Canada Elderberry, Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"