Native Plant of the Month: Scarlet Elderberry

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Scarlet Elderberry – Sambucus racemosa

To identify a scarlet elderberry, try to find shrubs that have downy green leaves with strong, distinctive odor. They have half-ball mound of small white flowers in conical or pyramidal shaped clusters that appear in March and April. Elderberry’s most distinctive feature of all is their red, fleshy berries!

Because red elderberry spreads slowly by seed or root sprouting, it is not considered a primary competitor. Elderberry relies on animals and other pollinators, such as bees, to disperse its seeds. This process is called zoochory.

Many native Pacific Northwest groups such as the Cowlitz, Klallam, Makah, Quinault, Skagit, and Snohomish used scarlet elderberry for food. The berries can be used for jam and wine but must be prepared properly. The bark, wood, leaves, and roots can cause nausea. Other types of elderberries are blue (Sambucus nigra) and black elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).

Traditional trading of these different species of Elderberry over the Cascade Mountains dates back thousands of years and calls into question how we define a native plant. Some people avoid red elderberries, insisting that the blue ones are more palatable, but others disagree. Which do you prefer?

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By:
SHADOW Intern Gabrielle (Gabi) Esparza