Common Elder

Common Elder (Sambucus Canadensis)


A small shrub, usually with many stems arising from the base, that can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 m) high. Flat clusters of creamy white flowers contrast with lush, compound leaves containing 5 to 15 leaflets. The dark purple, almost black fruit, about 1/4 inch (6 mm) in diameter, ripens during late August and September. Elder leaves exude an unpleasant odour when crushed. The tips of twigs die back and branches often break off over the winter. Buds are opposite and large, although though not as big as those of red-berried elder. Bark is pale deep green, changing to light brown as the plant grows older.


Growing Conditions:

Unlike the closely-related red-berried cousin, this elder likes moist soil and can stand flooding conditions. It is often found in damp areas along roadsides, fence-lines and stream-banks. Common elder prefers full sunlight but is very tolerant of shade.


Elders can be grown from cuttings, both summer or winter. It is easiest to cut the ends of branches with three sets of buds in early spring. Plant directly in a permanent location, preferably after loosening up the soil. Bury two sets of buds and leave the top set exposed. For larger amounts of plants, it is easier to grow common elder from seed. Collect ripe berries, crush them between your fingers, and plant. Each berry contains 3-5 seeds, so they can be planted 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) apart. Most will not germinate until the second spring.

Wildlife Uses:

Berries are a preferred food of blue jay, northern mockingbird, gray catbird, American robin (below), wood thrush, Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, veery, cedar waxwing, rose-breasted grosbeak and white-throated sparrow, and are eaten by dozens of other species. The shrub provides good cover, and is used as a nesting site by alder flycatcher, yellow warbler and American goldfinch. In winter, snowshoe hare and other mammals browse the twigs and buds.

Areas of Usage:

This shrub is useful for planting in a wide variety of sites, as long as sufficient moisture is present. As a landscape plant around the home, it is well suited to clumps or hedges. It fits in well with the earlier-flowering red-berried elder. The combination of lush green foliage, common elder’s white flowers and red-berried elder’s colourful fruit is striking. The berries of common elder are also used as a food source by humans, as fresh fruit or for elderberry wine, jams, jellies, pies. The twigs, bark and leaves are highly toxic. Along streams or ponds, common elders add an important source of food and cover and should be incorporated into any plantings in moist areas.

Additional Information:

The Common Elder is found throughout the province. It is a shrub 5 to 15 feet in height. The stems rise from the ground usually in clumps and extend to the tip of the shrub. The branches are ascending and the crown is generally round-topped. It prefers moist soils where it reaches its best growth. It is common on the borders of streams and along fences. The wood is of no commercial importance but the fruit makes very good wine and is also used in pies and puddings. The shrub is planted as an ornamental. Its showy, sweet-smelling, white flowers and later the multitude of purple berries and measurable to the beauty of the landscape.

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