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Close up of the ripe, blue berries of a native blue elderberry shrub (Sambucus caerulea). One of the 100+ species of Pacific Northwest native plants available at Sparrowhawk Native Plants nursery in Portland, Oregon.
Close up of a ripe cluster of blue elderberries (Sambucus caerulea) that have been heavily picked over, presumably by birds. One of the 100+ species of Pacific Northwest native plants available at Sparrowhawk Native Plants nursery in Portland, Oregon.
Close-up of a flat-topped cluster of creamy white flowers, or umbel, of a blue elderberry shrub (Sambucus caerulea). One of the 100+ species of Pacific Northwest native plants available at Sparrowhawk Native Plants nursery in Portland, Oregon.

Blue Elderberry

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Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea

Blue Elderberry is a very large, deciduous shrub experiencing increased popularity thanks to its countless ecological and wildlife benefits and rich ethnobotanical legacy. It is extraordinarily fast growing and hardy in the right conditions, quickly establishing many small trucks that create a fountain shape that becomes covered with dense flat-tops clusters (called umbels) of creamy white flowers in late spring and early summer. The pollinated flowers become powdery blue berries that usually ripen in September and are edible, if you can beat the 30+ species of bird that feast on them as a critical food source during their fall migration.

  • Plant type/canopy layer: deciduous perennial large shrub or small tree
  • Size at maturity: 10'-30' tall, equally as wide (at the top of the canopy)
  • Light requirements: full sun, part sun/part shade
  • Moisture requirements: moist to dry soil
  • Bloom time: May - Aug (generally May - June in the Portland Metro area)
  • Growth rate/ease: fast growing, easy to grow in the right conditions 
  • Wildlife support: young shoots and leaves are food for deer and elk; pithy stems are excellent habitat for mason bees; flowers attract and provide nectar to hummingbirds, adult butterflies, bees and other insect pollinators, as well as beneficial, pest-eating insects; berries attract and are an important food source for squirrels, chipmunks, and over 30 species of local birds including jays, woodpeckers, pigeons, grosbeaks, robins, thrushes, bluebirds, towhees, and tanagers; overall plant is a caterpillar host and larval food source for over a dozen of species of native butterflies and moths such as the White-lined Sphinx moth and Virginian Tiger Moth aka Yellow Wooly Bear moth and provides cover and nesting sites for birds; dead elder wood is the preferred habitat of the mushroom Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as Judas’ ear fungus or wood ear fungus 
  • Native habitat/range: common in open areas of mixed conifer forests and forest-steppe transitions, in chaparral, sage scrub, grassland, and wetland-riparian habitats, at high elevations, from southern British Columbia to California; to western Montana through west Texas. Portland Plant List - yes. 
  • Special features & uses: wildlife favorite; relatively deer resistant once established (young shoots may need protection in rural landscapes); landscape uses include butterfly and pollinator gardens, erosion control, slope stabilization, and hedgerows. Elderflowers can be used in syrups, cordials and liqueurs, the fully-ripe fruit is edible, highly nutritious and is traditionally eaten fresh, dried, steamed or boiled and used in wine, jellies, candy, pies and sauces. Please take note that unripe fruit can cause an upset stomach and all green parts of the plant are poisonous and create cyanide-producing glycosides. Many people choose to cook and strain the berries before consumption. Always verify recipes from multiple sources when preparing wild foods. Most plant parts are considered highly medicinal; bark and leaves can be to induce vomiting and as a laxative and applied externally for pain, bruises, swelling, and as an antiseptic; flowers and berries can be made into a tea or syrup to treat cold and flu symptoms. Elder also has countless ethnobotanical uses; the berries can be used to make black or purple dye, the stems make an orange or yellow dye and are excellent as twisting sticks to start a fire and as a bellow to blow air into it; hollow stems have been used in instruments for thousands of years and can also be made into pipes, blowguns, squirt guns and whistles, which indigenous people use to call elk; the pith was traditionally used by watchmakers for intricately cleaning tools. Lastly, elder trees are also considered sacred in Celtic folklore and mythology and used in making wands 

Gardening with Blue Elderberry:  This miracle sprout can grow from a one gallon pot into a 15’ plant in just a couple years, making it an ideal choice for new gardens and other places where you want a hedge or barrier established quickly. It also provides a lovely mid-layer between taller trees and low perennials, that is highly attractive to the human eye, as well as wildlife. Planting several will encourage more flowers and fruit. Be sure to plant it where it will have plenty of space, in most-to-full sun locations. It tolerates a variety of soils, but will be happiest with medium to fast drainage and some moisture. It is drought tolerant and only needs to be deeply watered once per month once established - if at all. It also readily accepts pruning, which some gardeners appreciate because its form can get a little bonkers. But I find the birds, especially a little downy woodpecker that adores my garden, prefer the wild form; especially the errant leafless branches, that some narrowly refer to as “dead”, but from my vantage point are actually full of life. Plus, superstition declares that one must apologize three times to an elder when pruning or cutting it down, lest you be struck by bad luck! 

Elderberry can be a rare find because it is a difficult species for growers to hold in the pot over the winter without rotting. So they usually just pot up a small crop in late winter that can be sold by fall. This means, it is often unavailable in the qualities we need for fall. At best, we’re able to source this plant every few years, in the spring when it is a freshly potted cutting that should be planted carefully so as to not disturb its light roots. 

Photo Credit 1: "Sky blue berries?" by Elaine with Grey Cats is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo Credit 2: "Blue Elderberry Tree Sambucus caerulea" by Bugldy99 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo Credit 3: "Schwarzer Holunder (Sambucus nigra)" by blumenbiene is licensed under CC BY 2.0