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Plant of the Month: Blue Elderberry

What is that big shrubby plant, that puts out big clusters of droopy white flowers in late spring, that turn into deep blue clusters of powder-coated berries in the summer?  Is it edible? Is it native to California? Can you really make wine out of it?

Blue Elderberry  (Sambucus nigra, ssp. caerulea) also known as Mexican Elderberry, is a deciduous shrub typically found along streams, irrigation ditches and other riparian corridors.  Its natural range is Oregon to Baja, where it is often found happily growing with toyon, live oak, and white flowering gooseberry. It also grows in chaparral, sage scrub, grassland and wetland-riparian habitats.  It has a cousin found closer to the coast, known as Red Elderberry.

Blue Elderberry provides great value to wildlife. It attracts many bird species, and is one of the most important sources of berries for birds in California.  It provides cover for many small mammals, birds and insects.  It is deer resistant, and attracts a variety of butterfly and bee species. It also is the host plant for the humble and unassuming Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle.  This beetle’s current California Fish & Wildlife Service status is “threatened” due to loss of habitat resulting from conversion of land to agriculture, grazing, and levee construction; competition from non-native species; and loss of land to development for recreational, industrial and urban purposes. The adult beetles eat elderberry leaves and flowers, and the larvae eat the pithy inside of the elderberry stem, where they live for part of their lives. Because of the “threatened” status of the beetle, and the fact that the blue elderberry shrub is its host plant (its habitat, so to speak), the elderberry shrub is protected from being disturbed, destroyed, removed, and even trimmed, if the branches are larger than 1 inch diameter,  since the beetle larvae could potentially be living inside branches of that size or larger.

Early Californians used blue elderberries as a food source, and as a natural remedy to benefit the immune system.  Branches were favored for arrow shafts as they grow straight and long, and were also bored out to make flutes and whistles.

The entire elderberry plant, including the berries, is mildly toxic, and some people will get an unpleasant reaction to eating even small quantities of fresh berries. However, most people find fresh blossoms and berries are edible and delicious in small quantities, and the berries can be used in pancakes, fritters, jellies, syrups, and yes, even wine.  Cooking or drying the blossoms and berries destroys the toxins making them safer to eat for some of those who experience gastrointestinal issues from eating the berries. However, this is not so with the stems, and the fruit of the coastal cousin, red elderberry, which is always toxic.

Blue Elderberry is a great restoration plant because it is tough, easy to grow, and can handle a variety of different soil moisture levels. Once it is established it can grow well in dry soils, although it will become summer deciduous or semi-deciduous (it will lose its leave in the summer, to preserve moisture and nutrients), and will turn green again with early winter rains. It grows rapidly, and can grow from a 1 gallon container to a 15 foot tall tree in only three years, if conditions are right.  It will grow to a maximum height of 30 feet, and will tolerate some shade.

Enjoy this multi-use shrub in a section of your yard where it will not be disturbed, and where it can grow to its full size (30 feet) without needing to be trimmed or moved.