Description & Overview

Native to Wisconsin, Scarlet Elderberry is a lovely flowering and fruiting shrub perfect for just about any area. Historically it has been found growing in moist woodlands, along stream banks, fields, and roadsides; however, it is also at home in fairly poor conditions amongst hemlock, beech, and sugar maple. Its fragrant white flowers bloom earlier in spring than most others, attracting many pollinators who seek food after a long winter.

You may also know Scarlet Elderberry as Red Elderberry or Scarlet Elder.
The botanical name may have been previously known as Sambucus racemosa var. pubens.

Core Characteristics

Category: Shrub

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 10-12 feet

Mature Spread: 10-12 feet

Growth Rate: Fast

Growth Form: Upright, vase-shaped; suckering and spreading

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Full Shade

Site Requirements: Tolerates a variety of conditions, but is partial to rich, slightly acidic moist soil

Flower: 3-6" panicles of fragrant, creamy white flowers

Bloom Period: Late May

Foliage: Dark green, pinnately compound with 5-7 leaflets

Fall Color: N/A

Urban Approved: Yes

Fruit Notes: ¼" scarlet red clusters of drupes appear in mid-summer.

Suggested Uses

With its sprawling habit, Scarlet Elderberry is best for areas where its ranging nature will be appreciated. Planted in groups, Scarlet Elderberry is an excellent choice for filling in areas once populated by Glossy Buckthorn or other invasive species. Its fast-growing nature and dense branching would create an effective border, screen, or hedge in little time.

Scarlet Elderberry’s deeply cut leaves, attractive flowers, and pretty fruit make it a good candidate for a specimen shrub provided suckers and form are controlled.

Enjoying moist, loamy soil, Scarlet Elderberry would be great for naturalizing areas along streams, ponds, or low spots along woodland edges. They also do well planted amongst sugar maples, beeches, and hemlocks in fairly poor soils – very versatile!

Supporting many birds, insects, and mammals, using Scarlet Elderberry in wildlife plantings is an excellent option.

Native to Wisconsin, Scarlet Elderberry is a lovely flowering and fruiting shrub perfect for just about any area. Historically it has been found growi…

Wildlife Value

The red fruits of Scarlet Elderberry are high in carbs and fat and are relished by birds including ruffed grouse, catbirds, brown thrashers, and wood thrush. The shrubs also provide excellent cover, perching, and nesting opportunities for birds. Interestingly, when planted along streambanks, Scarlet Elderberry provides shade cover for fish.

Chipmunks, squirrels, mice, raccoons, and black bears also enjoy the fruit.

Browse by deer and other hoofed mammals is minimal as most parts of the plant are toxic, containing cyanide; however, they have been known to partake when other more palatable options are absent. Porcupines, mice, and snowshoe hares will eat the buds and bark in winter.

The flowers, while malodorous to humans, are visited by flies, beetles, and bees to collect pollen. Long-tongued bees such as Honey bees and short-tongued bees including Miner bees, as well as Syrphid flies, and beetles feed on the pollen of Scarlet Elderberry. The pithy stems are easy to hollow out and prove to be excellent nest sites for some carpenter bees.

Maintenance Tips

Scarlet Elderberry can handle as much pruning as is desired. You can simply cut out dead and weakened stems (twig dieback at the tips is fairly common). Another approach is to cut the first-year stems to a shorter height or prune it right to the ground which will rejuvenate and control their form. Whichever pruning strategy is used, the time to do it is in late winter when it is in dormancy.

Native to Wisconsin, Scarlet Elderberry is a lovely flowering and fruiting shrub perfect for just about any area. Historically it has been found growi…

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: No
Rabbit Resistant: No

The fruit is mildly toxic to humans if consumed raw but is safe after cooking. Be careful not to plant where children or others may be tempted to eat the fruits. Fortunately, the birds devour these in short order.

No serious insect or disease problems although it can be susceptible to powdery mildew, leaf spot, borers, spider mites, and aphids. A drawback of the shrub is the pithy, weak, wood which can cause damage to branches when placed in areas with high winds. Periods of heavy snow and ice can also cause branches to break in winter.

Leaf Lore

The genus name Sambucus comes from the Greek word “sambuce,” which was a wood instrument (whistle) used in ancient times, fashioned from twigs once the pith was removed. In Latin, “sambuca” is a type of harp made from the shrub’s wood. The specific epithet pubens means “downy.”

Scarlet elder (Sambucus pubens) and European red elder (Sambucus racemosa) were once considered to be separate species originating on different continents. Recently, they were combined into a single species so you will find Scarlet elderberry under the name Sambucus racemosa or Sambucus racemosa var. pubens.

The Italian liqueur, Sambuca, is named for the elderberry. While elderflower was an original ingredient of the beverage, the flavor now associated with Sambuca is primarily that of anise.

There is some evidence that Scarlet Elderberry may be somewhat tolerant of heavy metal contamination as it was present on acidic copper and nickel mining and smelting sites in Ontario, Canada. It is also a bioindicator of ozone pollution, evident when leaf stippling bleaches as ozone exposure increases.

Historically, the bark and the leaves were used as a diuretic and purgative, to treat colds, fever, and tuberculosis by indigenous peoples. The blossoms have been used in the treatment of measles. The Dene and Kwakiutl people used hollow stems to make toy popguns.

Companion Plants

Naturally found in deciduous hardwood areas, Scarlet Elderberry would do well alongside Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), in the understory of willow trees (Salix spp.), beeches (Fagus spp.), maples (Acer spp.), basswood (Tilia spp.), hickory (Carya spp.), oaks (Quercus spp.), and Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).

Varied site conditions allow for a multitude of companion plant options: Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), Common Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), Sweet Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), Witherod Viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides), Spotted Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Glossy Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa var. elata).

Native to Wisconsin, Scarlet Elderberry is a lovely flowering and fruiting shrub perfect for just about any area. Historically it has been found growi…
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Written by Johnson's Nursery