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All About the Red Elderberry

Over the winter months, many people look for natural ways to boost their immune system to ward off sickness. Partaking in elderberry syrup has recently become quite a popular choice. A quick search on the internet will produce everything from elderberry gummies to syrup to capsules.

But have you heard of the red elderberry? While in the same genus family as the common elderberry, this isn’t the same type of plant generally used in elderberry syrup.

Read on to learn all about the red elderberry, how it differs from the common elderberry, and its uses.

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Red elderberry bush

What is the Red Elderberry?

This beautiful pyramid-shaped plant is part of the honeysuckle family. Often called the scarlet elder or red-berried elder, it blooms naturally during summer. It is also sometimes called the stinking elder due to the unpleasant odor of crushed stems and flowers.

The native peoples in the areas where the plant grows naturally have long used the plant for its medicinal properties and food consumption. Some people groups have even used the plant’s hollow stems for blow guns or whistles.

The Greek name Sambucus Racemosa translated means stringed instrument made of elder wood and elongated flower-head. The red in the name identifies the colorful fruit the plant produces.

Characteristics of the Plant

This unique plant often appears as tree-like or as a globular shrub. It can grow anywhere from 3-9 feet in height but may reach heights of 20 feet in the wild.

The leaves are compound leaves, divided into 5-7 leaflets per compound. Each leaflet features toothed margins (or edges) and an underside covered in indumentum or a hairy covering.

The flowers of the red elderberry are fragrant and appear pyramidal in shape, and usually white or cream colored. The berries present as the traditional bright red but can vary from purplish-black to yellow or even white.

This particular plant usually displays a brownish-gray bark.

The Natural Habitat of Red Elderberry

The red elderberry plant is native to Europe, northern Asia, and North America throughout Canada and the United States, and down into Mexico. This plant commonly grows in riparian environments, the woodlands, or other areas of higher moisture.

Although it grows naturally in many places, it can be cultivated in many states within the U.S. In recent years, it has become a popular addition for many homes as part of their landscaping aesthetic.

Is the Red Elderberry Edible?

Red elderberry is considered toxic to consume in the raw state. However, with proper preparation, many native growers of elderberries use the plant as part of their diet.

Red elderberries growing in the spring

Elderberries should not be eaten right off the shrub, as consuming raw berries causes nausea in some people. It is imperative that they be cooked prior to consumption. Cooked berries are useful for making jellies, jams, sauces, and even wines.

Caution: All parts of the red elderberry are considered poisonous to a degree, possibly causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and coma. Boil or cook according to the directions for intended use prior to consuming. When cooking the berries, be sure to remove the seed beforehand.

Medicinal Properties of Red Elderberries

The leaves, bark, and roots can be used externally to treat sore muscles, joints, and abscesses. Drinking tea made out of the root or bark will encourage vomiting and also works as a laxative.

The flowers of the red elderberry are especially well known for their aid in reducing coughs and colds when they are boiled down.

In modern medicine, the plant is used in nasal sprays to combat sinus infections and has been shown to lower blood pressure. The extract is being researched for use in cancer remedies for its anti-carcinogenic properties.

The Red Elderberry and Wildlife

The red elderberry plant can be used for revegetation, wildlife plantings, and erosion control. It fares well when used for conservation efforts since so much wildlife benefits from its presence.

Deer and elk are drawn to the plant, as well as bears. In winter, porcupines, mice, and hares enjoy consuming the buds or bark.

Young redstart bird sitting in a red elderberry bush

Birds like the thrush, robin, grouse, song sparrow, brown thrasher, gray catbird, and pigeon prefer to eat the berries. Chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and raccoons also enjoy the tasty fruit. The pleasant fragrance of the flowers draws hummingbirds and butterflies.

Growing it!

This lovely plant is often grown as an ornamental plant in gardens. The visual ambiance of the plant makes it popular for both wildlife and traditional gardens. Those looking for a natural landscape appearance in their garden will be pleased with the addition of this plant.

To grow your own, be sure your location has full sun exposure. The area will need to retain a moderate to a high amount of moisture. Look for soil that is naturally loamy sand or silt with good drainage. Fertilize your red elderberry with an all-purpose fertilizer like this one from Hoss.

The red elderberry plant will be one of the first trees to bloom in the springtime.

Where to Buy Red Elderberry

This plant isn’t quite as common as the average elderberry at your local nursery. You can purchase cuttings online and have them delivered to your doorstep to grow this unique shrub right in your backyard.

Wrapping up the Red Elderberry

Now that you know about the red elderberry, you can explore the idea of growing your own and making your yard a hot spot for wildlife visiting!

See our post on the elderberry plant to learn more about the other varieties of elderberries and how to care for them.