American Elderberry

Sambucus canadensis

Description & Overview

American Elderberry is a large, sprawling, Wisconsin native shrub with bright green leaves, white clusters of fragrant flowers, and juicy, edible black fruits. Elderberry blooms at a time of year when little else is. This native species can tolerate low, wet areas that others cannot. It’s perfect for those wanting a natural look and plenty of wildlife-friendly features!

You may also know this shrubs as American Elder, Common Elderberry, or simply Elderberry.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 6-12 feet
Mature Spread: 6-12 feet
Growth Rate: Moderate
Growth Form: Upright, arching
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Prefers moist, well-drained sites
Flower: 4-10″ flat-topped round clusters of fragrant white flowers
Bloom Period: June/July
Foliage: Bright green compound leaves with lance-shaped leaflets up to 6 inches long
Fall Color: Yellow/gold
Fruit Notes: 1/4″ black fruits (drupes)

Suggested Uses:

American Elderberry is a spreading, sprawling plant that suckers and forms colonies. It’s best for large open landscapes or naturalizing areas, unless you choose to prune back suckers in a formal landscape. Its ability to tolerate wet soils make it an ideal choice for low, moist spots in the landscape where other plants have failed. The purple-black fruits yield a crimson juice and can be used to make jams, jellies, and wine. The flowers can be used to flavor foods or make tea as well!

Salable #5 Container American Elderberries in Summer. Pictures taken late July.

Wildlife Value:

Over 50 species of birds and small mammals will eat the berries from summer to fall. This plant offers outstanding nesting cover for birds, as it promotes grasses and forbs to grow under its arching habit. Perhaps to its detriment, it also provides great browse for deer through summer, and after the first frost the leaves become even more delicious.

Maintenance Tips:

Elderberry will tolerate as much pruning as you desire. You can simply cut out dead and weakened stems, cut the first-year stems back to a shorter height, or do a hard rejuvenation pruning to the ground. Whichever pruning strategy you choose, you should do this in late winter. Check out all your options in pruning and your plants.

For timeline reference: flower picture taken mid July.

For timeline reference: berry picture taken mid September.


American Elderberry has no serious insect or disease problems. One drawback of the shrub is it’s weaker wood, meaning the stems can be susceptible to wind and snow/ice damage.

Leaf Lore:

The name ‘elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ellen which means “fire-kindler,” due to its dry, pithy stems that make good fire-starting material. Also, the light canes make for decent fort material for children.

Elderberries are high in both vitamin C and rutin, which are known to improve immune system function. You can also use the flower to make elder flower flavored spirits. The flowers can be added to pancake batter and cooked, revealing little cooked flowers on the surface- a great way to impress someone after a night out.

Companion Plants:

If you have a large area to work with, try planting American Elderberry under Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), another native, colonizing species with wildlife value. Create a layered shrub border with ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), which has similar texture and habit. Native perennials that overlap Elderberry’s bloom period, maximizing appeal to pollinators, include Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Elm-leafed Goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia), and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

johnson's nursery plant knowledgebase for the midwest tree logo popout 32x32
johnson's nursery plant knowledgebase for the midwest tree logo popout 32x32
johnson's nursery plant knowledgebase for the midwest tree logo popout 32x32
johnson's nursery plant knowledgebase for the midwest tree logo popout 32x32