Our native elderberries cause some confusion to those learning about plants. First of all, “elder” sounds a lot like “alder,” but they are two different families of shrubs and look totally different. Elders (common and red-berried) produce fruit, while alders (speckled and downy) produce seeds. It is the berries that I am most interested in, the thing that sparked my interest in these plants.
At first glance, the two native elders can be easily mistaken. The leaves of both are large and compound (having multiple leaflets making up a single leaf). The shrubs tend to be large and a bit unruly. But there are many easy ways to tell them apart, depending on the season. If the plants are fruiting in summer, the common elder—which is actually less common than the red-berried elder—has dark purple fruits. The red-berried elder is aptly named for its bright red berries.
Both plants are fantastic for wildlife, especially when grown together. Red-berried elders start to flower in the middle of April, while common elders are at about three weeks later. The red berries that the flowers turn into are an important early food source for a variety of fruit-eating birds—everything from American robins and cedar waxwings to blue jays and woodpeckers. At Macphail Woods, we regularly see large flocks of birds eating the berries.
The common elder, since it flowers later, also produces fruit later. So, instead of leaving an area once the red-berried elder fruit has been eaten, the birds turn to the dark berries of the common elder. By growing both species, you extend the feeding season of fruit eating birds in your area.
While the red-berried elder is a wonderful plant, it is the common elder that really steals the show. It is one of the showiest of our native shrubs, with large white flower heads against the backdrop of deep green leaves, leading to clusters of dark berries.
The berries have become famous in the music world. Elton John’s “Elderberry Wine“ is just one of many songs that reference the fruit. The berries, when fully ripe, are used in juices, pies, and yes, wines. The raw fruit can be poisonous, so it is recommended to only eat cooked elderberries. The fruits are very high in antioxidants, and common elder is the base for a tonic that is said to help strengthen the immune system. The flower clusters can be lightly battered and deep fried, and are also dried and used as part of many herbal tea mixes.
As a landscape plant, common elder is almost without equal. It generally grows to be about 6 to 8 feet and in the spring is full of beautiful white flowers. Later in August, the fruit becomes the showy part of the plant. And the birds! They’re the real attraction for me. So many different species of birds eat the fruit of common elder. I remember looking out the front door of the Macphail Woods Nature Centre and watching two Northern flickers gorging themselves on elderberries. It was quite comical, as the large woodpeckers were too heavy to sit on the branches, so they had to be content with eating what could be reached from the ground. We tend to think of woodpeckers eating ants and other insects, but they change their diet during the year when there is abundant fruit available.
I love the idea of a beautiful native shrub that produces edible flowers and fruit, and attracts pollinators and some beautiful birds. Very much a win-win-win situation.