Sambucus canadensis (Common Elderberry)

Plant Info
Also known as: Common Black Elder, Canadian Black Elderberry, American Elderberry
Family:Adoxaceae (Moschatel)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, sun; moist; floodplains, wet ditches, thickets, woodland edges, marshland edges, meadows
Bloom season:July - August
Plant height:4 to 13 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 5-petals Cluster type: flat

[photo of flowers] Flat to dome-shaped clusters 3 to 10 inches in diameter at the tips of branches. Flowers are about ¼ inch across, white with 5 rounded petals and 5 creamy white-tipped stamens surrounding a pale, round ovary in the center, a tiny 3 to 5-parted stigma at the top. Flower stalks are smooth and light green, turning purplish in fruit.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: opposite Leaf type: compound

[photo of leaves] Leaves are opposite, compound in groups of 5 to 11, usually 7. Leaflets are generally lance-elliptic, 2 to 5 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide, with a long taper to a pointed tip, finely serrated edges, and a short stalk. The upper surface is hairless to sparsely hairy along the midvein, the lower is paler in color and variously hairy along major veins, sometimes hairless. The lowest leaflet may be lobed in 3 parts. Leaf stalks are grooved on the upper side with a few fine hairs in the groove.

[photo of bark with shallow fissures] Twigs are hairless, yellowish green with a white pith and scattered, large lenticels (pores), the bark turning brownish gray the second year and the pith remaining white. Older bark is brownish gray with shallow fissures, becoming rough with thin, plate-like scales. Stems are multiple from the base, rarely exceed 3 inches in diameter, are typically arching, suckering, spreading by rhizomes and may form small colonies.

Fruit: Fruit type: berry/drupe

[photo of fruit] Fruit is a purplish-black berry less than ¼ inch diameter, containing 3 to 5 stone-like seeds. Flower stalks turn purplish as fruit develops, the clusters eventually drooping from the weight.


Considered a pioneer species and not long-lived, Common Elderberry performs best with low competition from other woody plants and in full sun to light shade. Birds love the fruits and it's a battle of wits to harvest them before the birds get them all, and before the rock-hard seeds become too large. Timed right, it makes great pie, among other things. It blooms much later than the related Red-berried Elder (Sambucus racemosa), which is more common as a woodland understory shrub, has more pyramidal flower clusters, orange-brown pith in 2-year-old branches, and, as the common name suggests, has bright red berries. Its berries are inedible and mature when Common Elderberry is just starting to bloom. Sambucus canadensis is often listed as synonym Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis, considered by some to be a European counterpart and by others as the accepted name, with S. canadensis the synonym. The debate goes on. There may be several varieties of S. canadensis—information is rather sketchy and, again, there does not appear to be a consensus—but var. canadensis, characterized by hairs on the leaflet veins but not the surface, is found in Minnesota.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Ramsey County. Other photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Pat W - Hy 169 between St Peter and Mankato
on: 2015-05-24 16:57:54

I saw these blooming over 4th of July 2014 which was very confusing for me as I knew that my Elderberry(S. racemosa) up North were long past blooming. It was only after finding this page did I realize they were different species. Thanks for the great web site.

Posted by: Leo - In the road ditch along hwy 61 N of Beroun MN
on: 2015-07-20 22:35:30

I have photos I can send to verify if needed.

Posted by: H Buss - Dakota County
on: 2017-02-23 12:51:36

I have several of these in a wet, low lying area in my woods. My son and I think the pith has such a soft texture.

Posted by: David - Minneapolis
on: 2017-07-23 16:21:21

I am trying to find a nursery that sells common elderberry bushes. Do you know what nurseries sell the elderberry bush/shrub?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2017-07-23 16:57:13

David, we do not track who sells what so see "Where to buy native seeds and plants" that is shown on most pages of this website. If none of those vendors carry it perhaps one knows who does.

Posted by: Steve K - Elk River
on: 2017-07-24 10:25:22

Prairie Restoration sells potted elderberry shrubs.

Posted by: Arlene H
on: 2017-11-22 19:18:24

Umm... Aren't these poisonous?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2017-11-23 04:37:43

Arlene, absolutely not - they're delicious. You might be thinking of some other berry-producing shrub but I don't know what.

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