Many have memories of a wintertime cough being treated with a Grandmother’s Elderberry Cordial, or the jewel-like colors of wine and jam made from the cooked berries on wintertime pantry shelves.

Even if you don’t do any preserving or cooking with Elderberries, Sambucus is a favorite plant of local songbirds, and so would be a very welcome addition to your backyard habitat.

Sambucus generally takes on the size of a large shrub (8-10’), but with sufficient moisture and rich soil can reach tree size (up to about 18-20+’). Because they grow very quickly as seedlings and saplings, they tend to get rangy; some severe pruning early on will encourage fuller growth.

The native Elderberry can be a very handsome specimen, with careful placement and attention to water and pruning; they are attractive in both flower and fruit and would make a colorful addition to the wild garden.

Sambucus racemosa

Sambucus Racemosa: Red Elderberry

This is the Elderberry of the region west of the Cascades, both in the mountains and lowlands. Of the native species it is the more likely to maintain a multi-stemmed shrub form; found along streambanks and in swampy conditions, it can still reach over 10’ in height. In late spring flowers start to form, conical or pyramidal sprays of tiny white flowers. They are followed by clusters of bright red berries that are very attractive to birds and are used in cooking (see sidebar note on toxicity of Sambucus).

Sambucus caerulea 7997

Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea: Blue Elderberry

Tall deciduous shrub (though nearly evergreen in mild climates) growing in a variety of conditions and reaching typically from 15 to 20 feet at maturity, often taking a broad, tree form. This is the eastside Elderberry, more tolerant of dry and hot conditions, though it too thrives with regular moisture; in the wild it is most commonly found along streams and waterways.

Yellow-white flowers, displayed in flat-topped clusters, are followed by intense blue berries that are visible from a long distance and add a distinct beauty. Birds love the berries and they are also often used in cooking and preserves (see sidebar note on toxicity of Sambucus).