American Elder (Sambucus nigra)


Honeysuckle Family (Caprifoliaceae)

Other Names:

Sambucus canadensis , American black elderberry, black elder, blackberry elder, common elder, common elderberry, elder flower, elderberry, sambucus, sweet elder.

Origin and Distribution:

American elder is a native North American shrub. Currently in North America, it is distributed throughout much of Canada and it mainly occurs in the U.S. in an area east of Minnesota. It is common everywhere in Ohio, where it is found in moist areas such as at the edges of swamps, marshes, bogs, ponds, streams, low fields, thickets, and woods. American elder prefers fertile soils and conditions that are moist to wet but it also persists when fairly dry.

Plant Description:

American elder is a perennial shrub that forms a dense, somewhat messy-looking thicket. Plants can reach 10 feet or more in height. The species is characterized by upright stems with white spongy pith, compound leaves composed of as few as 5 or as many as 11 coarsely-toothed leaflets, flat-topped clusters of tiny white flowers, and purplish-black berries that are used to make jams, jellies, pies, and wine. American elder reproduces by seeds and horizontal stems that grow along the soil surface and root at the nodes.

  • Root System:

    The root system is shallow.

  • Stems:

    The stout stems are 3 to 13 feet tall and have pith that is white, spongy, and emits a disagreeable odor when crushed. Stems may be unbranched or sparsely branched, and many stems arise from the same root system forming a wide, rounded, arching mass. Twigs are yellowish-gray and warty. Bark of older stems is thin and gray. New shoots arise from horizontal stems (stolons) that grow along the soil surface and root at the nodes.

  • Leaves:

    Leaves are opposite (2 leaves per node) and consist of 5 to 11 (usually 7) coarsely-toothed leaflets. Leaflets are lance-shaped, 2 to 11 inches long, 1 to 2 1/2 inches wide, tapering somewhat abruptly to a long point, and borne on short leaf stalks (petioles). Leaflets are shiny and bright green above and paler green and sometimes hairy below.

  • Flowers:

    The fragrant flowers are 1/6 inch wide, white, and consist of fused petals with 5 lobes. Flowers form in flat-topped clusters that are 3 to 10 inches in diameter and located at the ends of stems.

  • Fruits and Seeds:

    Fruits are shiny, round, purple-black berries that are less than 3/16 inch in diameter and filled with reddish juice. Berries are produced in much-branched clusters at the ends of red stalks. Berries usually contain 4 light brown, oblong, wrinkled seeds.

Similar Species:

Red elderberry (Sambucus pubens) is primarily a species of forests and has brown pith, cone-shaped flower clusters, and red fruits. European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) may grow to the size of a small tree and its fruits are larger than those of American elder.


Flowering occurs from June to July. Berries ripen and are often collected from August until October for making jams, jellies, pies, or wine.


Although reports of poisonings are rare, green parts of American elder including roots, shoots, leaves, flowers, and berries are toxic and can poison animals and humans if consumed. Leaves, young shoots, and flower buds are sometimes eaten by cattle and sheep with fatal results. Children have been poisoned by chewing bark and eating raw berries. Because stems are pithy, they are made into pea-shooters, blowguns, and other toys that could be poisonous if used. Although raw berries are toxic, berries that have been dried or cooked are not harmful.

Facts and Folklore:

  • 'Sambucus' was derived from the word for an ancient musical instrument and refers to the elder stems, which are filled with soft pith that is easily removed to form a flute or whistle.

  • Birds and other animals frequently eat the fruits and can disperse seeds over a great distance.

  • Jams, jellies, pies, and wines are made from the berries, and flowers have been used medicinally and for adding flavor to confections such as candies and jellies.

  • Bark and roots have been used for tanning leather and bark, stems, leaves, flowers, and berries have been used in dyes for coloring leather and fabric.