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Gardening in the Rainy Zone.
Sambucus racemosa ssp. pubens var. arborescens
RED ELDERBERRY, RED ELDER
syn. S. racemosa ssp. pubens var. arborescens
Pronounced: sam-BOO-kus rass-ih-MO-sah
Western portions of Alaska to California.
Sunset zones: 4-7, 14-17.
USDA zones: 3-9
Heat zones: 7-1.
Height: 10 feet (3 m).
Width: 10 feet (3 m).
Early spring to mid summer.
Pyramidal clusters of small white flowers followed by clusters of bright red berries.
Lance-shaped, green leaves divided into five to seven leaflets.
Bright, partial or dappled shade is best, but will take full sun.
Moist, humus rich soil.
Prune severely when dormant to keep it from getting leggy.
Sow fresh seed in autumn and place in a cold frame; may take up to two springs before they germinate. Alternatively, sow seed in spring after cold storage.
Softwood cuttings in late spring or early summer.
Rainy Side Notes
This American native can be found growing prolifically throughout North America and as far north as Alaska. The red berries may cause nausea if eaten raw, so always cook them before eating. They make an excellent jelly, that is if you can harvest enough berries before the birds do. All the rest of the plant's parts are toxic because of cyanide-producing glycosides.
Archaeological digs on sites that are hundreds of years old have produced caches of red elderberries, which is indicative of the importance of this berry as a food source for Native Americans.
This is an excellent tree for butterflies and birds, the latter relish the berries. The birds spread the seed around, but I find to extirpate the sprouted seedlings in areas where they are not wanted is a small price to pay for having these native plants. One year I found a robin nesting in the elderberry that grows at the corner of my home. This tree is one I prune annually to keep it bushier. It was obviously bushy enough to hide a nest that I did not see until I came too close to it. An alarmed robin quickly gave an alarm call, as it took wing, to distract me from its nest. Too late, I knew a nest was there. I carefully peered in, spied the nest in the crotch of some branches and then backed away from it. The rest of the season, I steered clear of the elderberry, until I knew the babies were gone.
Sambucus tends to become leggy, but severely pruning it annually while dormant keeps it bushier. One growing in my garden is leggy but has an interesting framework, so it receives no pruning.
If you are creating wildlife habitat in your Pacific Northwest garden, this is one native shrub you should consider growing.
Photographed in author's garden.