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American Elderberry Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis (Sambucus canadensis, Sambucus mexicana)


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American Elderberry, leaves & fruit
credit: Derek Jensen (Tysto)/CCSA

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Alternate name: Common Elderberry, Mexican Elderberry, Black Elder

Family: Caprifoliaceae, Honeysuckle view all from this family

Description Sambucus canadensis (American Elderberry) is native to a large area of North America east of the Rocky Mountains, and south through eastern Mexico and Central America to Panama. It grows in a variety of conditions including both wet and dry soils, primarily in sunny locations.

It is a deciduous suckering shrub growing to 3 m or more tall. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, pinnate with five to nine leaflets, the leaflets around 10 cm long and 5 cm broad. In summer, it bears large (20–30 cm diameter) corymbs of white flowers above the foliage, the individual flowers 5–6 mm diameter, with five petals.

The fruit is a dark purple to black berry 3–5 mm diameter, produced in drooping clusters in the fall. The berries and flowers are edible, but other parts of the plant are poisonous, containing toxic calcium oxalate crystals.

It is closely related to the European Sambucus nigra, and some authors treat it as conspecific, under the name Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis.

Warning Plant parts and raw berries are toxic to humans and animals; especially dangerous for children. Whistles made from the stems have been implicated in poisonings. Sensitivity to a toxin varies with a personís age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can vary in a plant according to season, the plantís different parts, and its stage of growth; and plants can absorb toxic substances, such as herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants from the water, air, and soil.

Habitat Watersides (fresh).

Range Florida, Texas, California, Rocky Mountains, Western Canada, Southeast, New England, Mid-Atlantic, Eastern Canada, Great Lakes, Northwest, Plains, Southwest.

Comments Elderberry is a fast grower and aggressive competitor with weeds and herbaceous species. Individual plants are very short-lived, however root masses produce new shoots. Cutting the whole bush to the groud every other year may be necessary to keep the bushes in check. This forest species will grow in full sun if the soil is well-tilled and watered. It can be planted as a hedge or alone. Provides effective erosion control on moist sites. S. simpsonii, occuring especially in FL, has twice-compound leaves and is considered a separate species.

Exposure Preference Shade to sun.

Flower April - May (in south); June - July (in north)

Native Distribution Nova Scotia to Florida, w. to s. Manitoba, e. Dakotas, e. Oklahoma & Texas

Site Preference Alluvial forests; bogs; ditches; drier, old fields

Soil Preference Tolerates a wide variety of wet to dry soils but prefers rich, moist, slightly acid soil. pH 6.1-7.5.

Wildlife Value Berries are relished by many bird species and mammals. Deer eat twigs and leaves.