Sambucus racemosa L.

by Kristina Ayars, Native Plants of Arizona 2009
Common names:
red elderberry; red elder; red-berried elder; red-berried elderberry; red-berry elder; mountain red elderberry; scarlet elderberry; scarlet elder; racemed elder; bunchberry elder (4).
Family: Caprifoliaceae (1).
Synonymy: Sambucus microbotrys Rydb.; Sambucus pubens Michx . var. arborescens Torr. & A. Gray ; Sambucus pubens Michx.; Sambucus callicarpa Greene; Sambucus racemosa L. ssp. pubens (Michx.) House; Sambucus racemosa L. var. arborescens (Torr. & A. Gray) A. Gray; Sambucus racemosa L. var. laciniata W.D.J. Koch ex DC. ; Sambucus racemosa L. var. leucocarpa (Torr. & A. Gray) Cronquist; Sambucus racemosa L. var. microbotrys (Rydb.) Kearney & Peebles; Sambucus racemosa L. var. pubens (Michx.) Koehne (2). Etymology: from the Greek word ‘sambuke' – a musical instrument made from elder wood and a name used by Pliny for a tree, possibly related to the elder tree (3); Racemosa refers to flowers in racemes (3).

Growth form:
Multiple stem tree-shrub (1), 10-20 ft. tall, upright branches arch with age (2); geophyte; phanerophyte (8).
Bark: light to dark gray or brown; smooth, becoming fissured into small, scaly or shaggy plates (6).
Leaves: Dark green, pinnately compound, to 10” long; 5 to 7 leaflets (7); opposite, with ovate-lanceolate leaflets and hairy undersides ( 8)
Inflorescence/flowers: panicled cyme (8) with numerous flowers, ¼ “ wide; white, 5-lobed corolla (6).
Large clusters of small, bright red, fleshy berries; 2-5 seeds per fruit (9).
Similar species: S. callicarpa and S. pubens and other species in the sub-species of Sambucus racemosa (6).

Life history:
Dioecious perennial shrub (2, 8). Root-sprouting is the most common type of regeneration, seedling establishment allows for colonization of new areas;
Native/introduced: Native (2)
Phenology:   Flowers between May and June (2).
Distribution: Rich or rocky woods; slopes; moist cliffs and ravines from 30.5 - 3,352 m elevation (1,8). In Arizona, red elderberry is reported only from Coconino County in the San Francisco Peaks and the Grand Canyon (8 ); also found throughout much of the U.S. and Canada, absent from the southeast (1).

Uses: Sambucus racemosa has many ethnobotanical uses in various Native American tribes; most commonly the Yurok, Swinomish, Squaxin, Snohomish, Skokomish, Skagit, Quinault, Oweekeno, Nitinaht, Makah, Paiute, Klallam, Hoh, Haisla, Hanaksiala, Green River Group, Cowlitz, and the Chehalis, use the berries, in different forms, as a food source(5).

Note:Stems, bark, leaves and roots contain cyanide-producing toxins but berries may be consumed as jelly or wine after cooking (9).Warning: fruit may be toxic if consumed without proper preparation (9).

1. University and Jepson Herbaria of the University of California at Berkeley
and Regents of the University of California (2009). Retrieved 9/18/09 from:
2. Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center The University of Texas at Austin (2009) Retrieved 9/18/09 from:
3. Charters, M.L. “A Dictionary of Botanical and Biographical Etymology” (2009) Retrieved 9/18/09 from :
4. Painter, E. “Common (vernacular) names applied to California vascular plants” Retreived 9/18/09 from:
5. University of Michigan at Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany Retreived 9/18/09 from: (2007) Retreived 9/18/09 from:
6. Epple, A. Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona . 1995. Lew Ann Publishing Company, Mesa , AZ
7. Fryer, Janet L. 2008. Sambucus racemosa. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory Retreived 9/18/09 from:
8. Darris,D.; Gonzalves,P. USDA NRCS Plant Fact Sheet Retreived 9/18/09 from: