Sambucus nigra subsp. cerulea
Common Name: blue elder
Type: Tree
Family: Adoxaceae
Native Range: Western North America
Zone: 4 to 9
Height: 15.00 to 30.00 feet
Spread: 15.00 to 30.00 feet
Bloom Time: June to July
Bloom Description: Yellowish-white
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium to wet
Maintenance: High
Suggested Use: Hedge, Flowering Tree, Rain Garden
Flower: Showy
Attracts: Birds, Butterflies
Fruit: Showy, Edible
Tolerate: Clay Soil, Wet Soil

Culture

Best grown in medium to wet, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Best fruit production in full sun and moist soil. Adapts to a wide range of soils, however, including dry ones. Respectable drought tolerance unlike some other species of Sambucus. Spreads by root suckers to form large colonies. Prune suckers as they appear unless naturalizing. Prune out dead or weakened stems and to shape in late winter.

Noteworthy Characteristics

Sambucus nigra, commonly called European elder, is a deciduous, somewhat sprawling, multi-stemmed shrub (occasionally a small tree) that is native to Europe, southwestern Asia and northern Africa. It typically grows to 8-20’ (less frequently to 30') tall. It is particularly noted for its aromatic late spring flowers and its edible fruits (elderberries). Compound pinnate leaves (to 10” long) are dark green. Each leaf contains 3-7 serrate, ovate to elliptic leaflets (to 5” long). Leaves have an unpleasant aroma when cut or crushed. Tiny white flowers in large flattened umbel-like cymes (to 10” across) bloom in June-July. Flowers have a musky fragrance. Flowers give way to clusters of glossy black elderberry fruits (each to 3/8” across) in late summer. Fruits have been used to make jams, jellies and pie fillings, but are not considered to be as flavorful as the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). Fruits and flowers have also been used to make elderberry wine. Fruits are attractive to birds and wildlife. Species plants are infrequently sold in commerce, but a large number of smaller cultivars featuring purple foliage, variegated foliage, double flowers or berry colors other than black have become popular landscape plants.

Subsp. cerulea, often commonly called blueberry elder or blue elder, is native to mountain areas in western North America. It is a deciduous tree or large multi-stemmed shrub which typically grows 15-30' (less frequently to 50') tall with a rounded crown. Compound pinnate, medium green leaves (5-7 leaflets each). Tiny yellowish-white flowers appear in large flattened cymes (to 8" across) in June. Flowers give way in late summer to clusters of edible, dark blue elderberry fruits. Fruits are covered with a white, waxy bloom (glaucous) as reflected by the fact that this species was formerly known as Sambucus glauca. Fruits are not palatable fresh off the plant, but can be quite tasty when cooked for use in sauces, jellies, pies and, of course, elderberry wine. Fruits are also quite attractive to wildlife. Native Americans reportedly bored out the soft pith from twigs to make flutes. Some authorities elevate this plant to its own species, Sambucus cerulea.

Genus name comes from the Latin name, perhaps connected with sambuca a kind of harp.

Specific epithet comes from the Latin word for black in obvious reference to berry color. Subspecies name means blue for fruit color.

Problems

Some susceptibility to canker, powdery mildew, leaf spot, borers, spider mites and aphids. Branches are susceptible to damage from high winds or from heavy snow/ice in winter.

Garden Uses

Shrub borders, screens or backgrounds. Particularly effective in wild/naturalized areas, open woodland gardens or wood margins where suckering spread is usually acceptable. Good shrub for stream/pond peripheries or low spots.