Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa L. ssp. pubens (Michx.) House var. arborescens (T. & G.) Gray


Perennial shrub to small tree, up to 6 m tall, leaves opposite, 15-30 cm long, deciduous, pinnately compound divided into 5-7 lanceolate leaflets. W. Cascade variety pubescent under leaflets. Flowers white to cream born in pyramidal panicles. Fruit red, three-seeded drupes. (3, 7)



















©William S. Justice, NPDC @ PLANTS




Circumboreal, found throughout the west cascades in riparian zones, wetlands and moist forests. (1, 3, 9)


Climate, elevation


Pacific maritime climate from sea level to 1000 m (sometimes up to 3500 m). (3, 7, 9)


 Local occurrence


Common throughout Puget Sound in moist clearings, open forests, stream banks, and wetlands (1, 7)


Habitat preferences


A facultative wetland species with a preference for disturbed moist sites in riparian zones, wetlands and moist forests. (1, 7)




Plant strategy type/successional stage


Not specifically noted in literature however most reference red elderberry as associated with disturbance indicating it may be a seral species reliant on regular disturbance to persist in a community and therefore possibly ruderal. (1, 7)


Associated species


Widely associated with both broadleaf deciduous and coniferous forests throughout its range. Commonly found locally beneath red alder (Alnus rubra), big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). Often found associated with willows (Salix spp.), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). (2, 5, 7)


May be collected as:


Seed – (400,000 to 800,000 seed/kg) ripens June-September, dry fruit and macerate with water to float off pulp or crush and dry fruit for same season seeding. (8, 9, 10)


Cuttings – one year old cuttings with 30-40% of their leaves retained taken after new wood is mature from summer through late winter. Cuttings kept in cold storage lose vigor. Cuttings can either be potted or installed directly in the field early enough to allow for rooting before winter. (8, 9, 10)


Collection restrictions or guidelines


Typical conservative collection methods for genetic integrity and minimal ecosystem impact apply.


Seed germination


Seed sown in fall after collection may not germinate until the second spring. Greenhouse germination increased by 5 minute sulfuric acid treatment followed by 48 hour water soak then warm and cold stratification. (8, 9)


Seed life (can be stored, short shelf-life, long shelf-life)


Can be stored for several years at 5 degrees Celsius (8)


Recommended seed storage conditions


Typical low temp, low humidity conditions

Propagation recommendations


Sow seed in media filled flats then cover with light perlite layer. Cover flats with plastic or glass to maintain high humidity. Once germinated raise cover slightly to allow for circulation. Once germination is complete remove cover and pot up seedlings. Germinants are ready for outplanting after the first year. Cuttings should be treated with root hormone and planted in pots with ample enough room for root growth. Rooting can be accelerated by keeping them in hot, humid conditions.  Rooted cuttings are ready for installation after the first year. (8, 9, 10)


Soil or medium requirements


1:1 peat:perlite or regular potting soil for cuttings, peat:sand:perlite mix for germination. (8)


Installation form


Seed can be directly sown into the field. Freshly collected cuttings can also be directly installed. Greenhouse raised germinants and rooted cuttings are ready for outplanting after one year. (8, 9)



Recommended planting density


Not noted in literature. Red elderberry takes on a sprawling tree-like form in favorable conditions therefore wide spacings of 2 m or more might be appropriate.


Care requirements after installed


Not noted in literature. Red elderberry has been noted to tolerated dry to wet soils. If installed in persistently moist sites favored by red elderberry watering may not be necessary. At dryer sites during the summer or during drought in wetter sites weekly watering may be needed. (7, 8, 11)


Normal rate of growth or spread; lifespan


Red elderberry is a moderately fast grower with a moderate lifespan of unspecified length (10)


Sources cited


(1) Cooke, Sarah Spear. A Field Guide to the Common Wetland Plants of Western Washington and Northwest Oregon. 1997. Seattle Audubon Society, Seattle WA.


(2) Franklin, Jerry F. & C. T. Dyrness. Natural Vegetation of Oregon and Washington. 1988. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis OR.


(3) Hitchcock, C. Leo and Cronquist, Arthur. Flora of the Pacific Northwest. 1998. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.


(4) Kozloff, Eugene. Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest. 1978. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.


(5) Kunze, Linda M. Preliminary Classification of Native, Low Elevation, Freshwater Wetland Vegetation in Western Washington. 1994. Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Olympia WA.


(6) Leigh, Michael. Grow Your Own Native Landscape. 1999. Washington State University Cooperative Extension – Thurston County, WA.


(7) Pojar, Jim and McKinnon, Andy, eds. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. 1994. Lone Pine Press, British Columbia.


(8) Potash, Laura and Aubry, Carol. Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Native Plant Notebook. 1997. North Cascades Institute. Sedro-Woolley WA.


(9) Rose, Robin, Chachulski, Caryn and Haase, Diane. Propagation of Pacific Northwest Native Plants. 2000. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis.

(10) USDA, NRCS. 2002. The PLANTS Database, Version 3.5 (http://plants.usda.gov) National Plant Database Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.

(11) USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) database. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/


Data compiled by


Rodney Pond 04.19.03