Blue Elderberry

Blue Elderberry © TCorelli

Blue Elder
Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea
NATIVE

Description (Jepson, PlantID.net)

  • Eudicotyledon
    • Eudicots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Muskroot Family (Adoxaceae)
  • Winter deciduous shrub or small tree
  • Leaves
    • Opposite (2 leaves at each junction with stem) and compound (divided into leaflets)
      • Odd 1-pinnate (arranged along a common axis, like a feather) with 1–4 leaflet pairs and a terminal leaflet
    • Toothed
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) is a flattened, dome-shaped cyme (a branched stem with flowers opening from the top down)
    • Many small, fragrant, white to cream-colored flowers
    • Ovary wholly or partly inferior (located below the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a berry-like drupe (a fleshy fruit with usually 1 seed in a hard inner shell – a stone fruit) blue-black at maturity
    • Waxy coating (bloom) makes the developing fruit appear powder blue
      • The term “bloom” is used by botanists to refer to the whitish wax coating that can develop on various plant parts, acting as a protective covering, as well as referring to a plant’s flowers
  • Height 6-26 ft.

Distribution

  • Native to California
    • Commonly grows along streambanks, and in moist areas within dry, more open coastal scrub
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California, grows from southern British Columbia to northwest Mexico and from Montana to Texas
  • Grows at elevations to 9,800 ft.
California Quail in Blue Elderberry © LMoffett

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Provides habitat and food for a variety of wildlife (Rayburn 2017)
    • Offers cover and nesting sites for birds and small mammals
    • Pithy twigs used as nesting sites for native bees (Lowry 2014)
    • Fruit and leaves browsed by mammals, e.g. Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)
    • Fruit is eaten by numerous birds, e.g. Western bluebird (Sialia mexicana), ash-throated flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens), white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophyrys), and California thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum)
    • Flowers are mostly pollinated by insects, but hummingbirds will visit flowers for nectar
  • Native people had many uses for blue elderberry
    • Bushes were actively managed by coppicing and burning to promote the growth of long straight shoots, increase fruit production (for humans and deer), thin congested canopies, and reduce insect infestations (Anderson 2005)
    • Wood, which is strong and light with an easily-removed soft pith (central tissue), was used to craft various tools and instruments
      • Shoots were used for arrow shafts and for spindles of hand-spun fire drills (Baugh 2014)
      • Hollow shoots were used to craft flutes, pipe stems, and clapper sticks
    • Fruit and twigs were used for basketry dyes
    • Fruit was eaten mashed or dried or boiled into a jam or sweet syrup
    • Medicinal uses
      • Decoction of leaves to treat colds or as a purgative
      • Infusion of bark to treat diarrhea
      • Decoction of roots for bladder problems or indigestion
  • Ripe berries, which are edible after cooking, are used to make jellies, pies, and wine
    • Elderberry is commercially cultivated for various food products
  • CAUTION – Unripe berries, the seeds of the fruit, and all green parts of the plant are poisonous, containing cyanogenic glycosides (CDC 1984)

Name Derivation

  • Sambucus (sam-BOO-kus) – from the Greek sambuke, a musical instrument made from elder wood
  • nigra (NYE-gra) – from the Latin niger, “black,” referring to the color of the fruit
  • caerulea (ser-OO-lee-a) – from the Latin caerula, “dark blue,” probably referring to the blue bloom (powder-like exudate) on the mature fruit
  • Elderberry – from the Old English ellærn, “elders,” referring to Sambucus species and likely related to the Old English alor, alder

Notes

  • Protected plant in riparian habitat of California’s Central Valley as it is the sole host for the federally-threatened, endemic valley elderberry longhorn beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus), which lives its entire life on elderberry (Rayburn 2017)
  • Elderberries (Sambucus species) have a long history in European folklore and were used for a great variety of purposes, including medicines, tools, and musical instruments
  • Previously included in the Honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae)
  • Edgewood’s blue elderberry is classified as a subspecies
    • Subspecies rank is used to recognize geographic distinctiveness, whereas variety rank is appropriate for variants seen throughout the geographic range of the species; in practice, these two ranks are not distinct
  • Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is also found in the Bay Area, though not at Edgewood
    • Berries are red and lack the powdery bloom
    • Inflorescence is dome-shaped, rather than flat-topped
    • As with blue elderberry, the stems, bark, leaves, fruit, and roots contain poisonous cyanogenic glycoside
      • Fruit can only be eaten cooked
Flowers (L) and Fruits (R) © DSchiel

ID Tips

  • The pinnate leaves and flat-top flower clusters of blue elderberry are distinctive and make this small tree easy to distinguish from other Edgewood plants bearing blue-black fruits

At Edgewood

  • Found in open woodlands, riparian
  • Flowers June – July
  • Fruit matures in August – September

See General References

Specific References

Anderson, M.K. 2005. Tending the Wild. University of California, Berkeley.

Baugh, D. 2014. Fire-by-friction: Materials of the San Francisco Bay Region. Primitive Ways.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 1984, Apr. 6. Poisoning from elderberry juice — California. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 33: 173-74.

Crane, M.F. 1989. Sambucus nigra subsp. cerulea. Fire Effects Information System. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 2015. Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea. Native Plants of North America. University of Texas at Austin.

Lowry, J.L. 2014. California Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Evergreen Huckleberry to Wild Ginger. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

Rayburn, A. 2017. Abundance and Distribution of Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea) on Lower Cache Creek, Yolo County, California.

Stevens, M. and G. Nesom. 2019. Plant Guide: Blue Elderberry. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), National Plant Data Center.