June Plant of the Month: Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

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Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). Photo Credit: Dan Whitten

Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is the only native species of Sambucus we have in South Carolina (one other species of Sambucus, Eastern Red Elderberry [Sambucus racemosa var. pubens] appears in the mountains to our north). According to Weakley’s Flora, 2023, it belongs (for now) in the Viburnum family (Viburnaceae), which ranges from opposite-leaved shrubs up to small trees. But Viburnums have simple leaves while Elderberry has pinnately compound leaves, and another author (Bolli, 1994) has called our Elderberry “Sambucus nigra ssp. Canadensis” with 5 other subspecies worldwide. Weakley’s Flora gives it species status.

The flowers appear in late May and well into June in a cyme, which is a flat-topped inflorescence of many small flowers with the center ones blooming first. The fruits ripen in July to August and are black to dark purple when ripe. The plant contains toxic cyanogenic glycocides with the exceptions of the flowers and cooked fruits. The flowers can be cut and battered, fried, and eaten as a fritter. While the ripe fruits are said to be toxic, I’ve eaten a small handful with no ill effects. The fruits are used for making wine, syrup, and a jelly which is my favorite jelly flavor! You can often find Elderberry syrup in health food stores, at local herbalists, and at farmers’ markets.

Products of the cooked fruits (particularly the syrup) are used medicinally to boost the immune system. The stems have been used as spiles to collect sap from Sugar Maple trees after the soft pith has been removed, and the ripe berries, rich in anthocyanidins, have been used as food coloring and as dye for cloth and baskets.

You would never want to gather Elderberry fruit from beneath power lines or along roadsides due to the spraying of herbicides and the presence of exhaust fumes (the plants can concentrate man-made toxins in their flowers and fruits). But in June, when their flowers are showy with clusters of white flowers, it is the best time to locate where the plants are for later harvesting.

Common Elderberry likes plenty of sun and moist or wet feet. The accompanying picture was on a stream side above a waterfall which made a nice opening in the forest canopy. Wet meadows and roadside ditches are also common places to find this beauteous shrub.

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