Red Elderberry

Since flowers and fruits usually do not occur concurrently, red elderberry is another plant to which Leonard and I will need to return in the fall to photograph fruits.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is a shrub or tree-like shrub that usually grows between 3 and 6 feet in height, but can reach 20 feet or more. A member of the Honeysuckle Family, red elderberry is found throughout most of North America from sea level to about 12,000 feet. It also occurs in Europe and Asia. Red elderberry’s habitat is generally moist areas along streams, swampy locales and wet forest openings. These red elderberry specimens were in bloom in late June along Castle Crest Trail in Crater Lake National Monument (Oregon).

Arising from a system of dense roots and rhizomes, red elderberry has bark that is reddish brown and warty. The twigs have spongy pith. The opposite, deciduous leaves are pinnately compound with 5 to 7 elliptical leaflets. The leaflets are pointed and sharply toothed. The leaves may be finely pubescent (hairy) on the underside.

The inflorescence is a small cone or pyramid-shaped cluster containing many small white flowers. Red elderberry flowers are saucer-shaped. The calyx is made up of five minute or almost absent sepals. The five petals are barely fused at the base and are recurved. Five white stamens with yellow anthers and an inferior ovary with 2 or 3 stigmas complete the flower.

Red elderberry fruits are bright red (sometimes purplish) berry-like drupes containing 3 to 5 nutlets. The berries do not have a bloom (waxy, white covering).

The stems, bark, roots and leaves of red elderberry contain cyanide-producing glycosides and are toxic. The fruits, although unpalatable and toxic to humans when raw, make good pies and jams when cooked. Butterflies and hummingbirds appreciate red elderberry nectar. The berries are eaten by birds, rodents and other wildlife. Red elderberry is a good forage crop for sheep and cattle, who can eat the plant without ill effects.

Native Americans used red elderberry twigs to make flutes. “Musical plant” was a common name for red elderberry because of its use as a musical instrument. They also made dyes, insecticides and medicines (an emetic, an antidiarrheal  and to stop bleeding, among other uses) from red elderberry. As youngsters we all made pea shooters from elderberry twigs and, using our pea shooters as weapons, would wage “wars” in the woods near our houses. Somehow without goggles, protective vests or adult supervision we all survived these “wars” with nary an injured eye.

Red elder and red-berried elder are two other common names for S. racemosa. The genus name comes from the Greek word “sambuke”, which was a musical instrument made from elder wood. The species name means “flowers in racemes”, a raceme being an elongated, indeterminate inflorescence with each flower equally stalked”.

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