Common Elderberry
Sambucus canadensis
Elderberry family (Caprifoliaceae)

Description: This is a native perennial shrub that is about 5-10' tall. The woody stems tend to arch outward from the base, particularly when there are drupes or flowers. These stems have a white pith, and are brittle and weak. The compound leaves are oddly pinnate, consisting of 2-4 pairs of opposite leaflets and a single terminal leaflet. Each leaflet is 2-3" long and about half as wide, with an ovate shape and slightly serrate margins. The overall effect is similar to the compound leaves of an Ash tree. The tiny white flowers occur in rather flat compound umbels about 4-6" across, and have a pleasant, if somewhat musty, fragrance. They bloom during the early summer for about a month, from which small purple drupes develop later in the summer. Occasionally, some of the woody stems will die back during the winter, but these are replaced by new stems appearing from the base.

Cultivation: This shrub likes full or partial sun and a moist loamy soil. It grows readily along sources of water, assuming that there is not too much flooding. Once established, this shrub is easy and generally problem-free.

Range & Habitat: Common Elderberry is quite common and occurs in every county in Illinois (see Distribution Map). It can be found in moist black soil prairies, open woodlands, thickets, moist meadows near rivers or woodlands, abandoned fields, powerline cuts, and along roadside ditches and fencerows. This plant can tolerate most disturbances, except regular mowing or plowing. Common Elderberry is one of the shrubby invaders of Eastern prairies around rivers or floodplain forests.

Faunal Associations: The pollen of the flowers attract Halictine bees, Syrphid flies, Bee flies, Muscid flies, Anthomyiid flies, and various beetles. The larvae of Achetodes zeac (Elder Borer Moth) and Desmocerus palliatus (Elderberry Longhorn Beetle) bore into the stems and eat the pith or roots, while the larvae of Tenthrado grandis (Elderberry Sawfly) and adult Metachroma spp. (Leaf Beetles) eat the foliage or flowers. The hollow stems of Common Elderberry provide nesting material for Osmia spp. (Mason bees) and Ceratina spp. (Little Carpenter bees). The small drupes are consumed by numerous songbirds during the summer (see Bird Table), and by such animals as the Fox Squirrel and White-Footed Mouse. This assists in the distribution of the shrub to new areas. During the fall or winter, the White-Tailed Deer and Cottontail Rabbit may browse on the bark or woody stems. Elk, which used to be native to Illinois, are known to browse on this shrub in other areas. Livestock may browse on the leaves and stems, particularly after a heavy frost in the fall. There have been reports of the leaves poisoning livestock, especially cattle and horses, if they are browsed earlier in the year when toxicity is higher.

Photographic Location: The above photographs were taken along a fencerow at the webmaster's apartment in Urbana, Illinois.

Comments: Common Elderberry is an attractive shrub, but often ignored because of its ubiquitous occurrence. In fact, people often destroy this shrub along fences or waterways in residential areas, notwithstanding its outstanding value to wildlife, particularly to songbirds. Sometimes this plant is referred to as Sambucus nigra var. canadensis by some authorities, because it is regarded as a variety of the European species.