Elderberries in Winter

The Elderberry Genus
As a genus, elderberry is rather distinctive, so if you’ve got mystery shrub that’s an elderberry, you shouldn’t have much trouble identifying it down to genus, even in the winter. Overall, both of our elderberries (Sambucus) share the following characteristics:

  • Shrubs with multiple, sparingly branched and very stout stems
  • Sucker sprout with great vigor!
  • Light brown bark
  • Prominent, knobby lenticels
  • Thick, spongy pith
  • Opposite branches
  • No terminal bud
  • Vibrant purple buds, occasionally with hints of pink and white on the bud scales or with the outer bud scales a deep brown, and
  • The tips of twigs often die back, leaving a natty mess of withered branches.

Telling Our Elderberries Apart
Over the years I’ve occasionally run into elderberry in Centennial Woods in Burlington, but I’d never really stopped to look all that closely to see which species of elderberry I’d been seeing. There aren’t a ton of elderberries out there in the world, and we’ve only got 2 here in Vermont, so getting down to species isn’t that difficult of a task once you know you’re looking at an elderberry.

And it’s a good skill to be able to differentiate between the 2 as red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, is inedible and black or common elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is delicious. Elderberry was one of the first wild plants in Vermont that I cultivated. I’ve got a giant black walnut in my backyard, and black walnuts are notoriously toxic (allelopathic) to most other species (e.g. nightshades). Elderberry, however, is tolerant of juglone, the allelopathic chemical in walnuts (or maybe: link 1, link 2), and while I already had a red elderberry growing under the walnut I wanted a dense patch of its edible cousin black elderberry. They are a joy to transplant and can easily be split over and over again, and so my 2 individuals have been split to about 30 individuals.

Finding Elderberries
Knowing the link between elderberries and walnuts, I headed out to take some photos of elderberries that I knew grew under a big black walnut in Centennial Woods. As with the dogwoods, once I started to look for elderberries I started to see them everywhere and I was barely out my door before I had encountered both species. Both are shade intolerant and grow in openings of varying moisture levels (they’re listed as a wetland species but they can occasionally take hold in openings of wooded areas or disturbed sites). Black elderberry prefers slightly warmer sites than red elderberry (and its range is reflective of this, with a much larger distribution that extends down into Mexico, while red elderberry is more New England and mid-Atlantic). Here’s a quick reference on telling the two species apart followed by a gallery of winter buds of both species:

Red elderberry
Sambucus racemosa
Black elderberry
Sambucus canadensis
  1. Pith in 2nd year is orange/brown
  2. Buds are large and bulbous/globular
  3. Fruit clusters in narrow racemes
  1. Pith is white
  2. Buds are small, sharp/pointy
  3. Fruit clusters in broad umbrella-like splays


Click images for full size photos

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