Viburnaceae (viburnum family) Sambucus

Sambucus mexicana blue elderberry

Mexico to British Columbia
Blue elderberry, Packard Children’s Hospital elevated garden. Sairus Patel, 20 Feb 2018
Blue elderberry in flower, Arizona Garden environs. Sairus Patel, 9 May 2023

A native plant on campus and at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, blue elderberry can easily be located in wild places and roadsides when in flower, or later when the ¼-inch blue-black berries appear. They come in rich clusters and have a white bloom. The compound leaves are quite characteristic, being about 8 inches long, arranged in pairs, and with about seven toothed leaflets each.

An elderberry tree stands in the northwest corner of Lasuen Street and Roth Way. A heavy-trunked ancient, much deteriorated, sits in a thicket of Catalina cherry west of the Mausoleum at the edge of the path (map pin). Others are nearby. See the vigorously sprouting stump of a former large four-trunked specimen in the wooded area opposite Lasuen Street from Lathrop Library, just behind the palms opposite the north corner of the library (map pin). Young shrubs are in the large elevated garden at Packard Children’s Hospital. A specimen reported just to the south of 3181 Alpine Road by Dorothy Regnery in 1989 was then about 9 feet around, 20 feet tall, and a candidate for the National Register of Big Trees maintained by American Forests of Washington, D.C.

The quantities of berries that can be collected in the neighborhood are edible when fresh and also readily processed into jelly. The large flower clusters can be scraped off for use, after shaking out the insects, as an alternative to vanilla. Elderberry wine is made from S. canadensis in the Eastern United States while a variety of S. nigra is the basis of the internationally known Sambuca liqueur. (The name Sambucus nigra subsp. caerulea has been used for blue elderberry, but is currently considered misapplied.)

The plant has hollow stalks that are slightly toxic, and red or white berries are to be strictly avoided. The name derives from sambuke, a Greek musical instrument, possibly the sackbut, a pipe whose pitch was changed by a slide.

Name derivation: see text above.

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the S. mexicana entry in the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Name updated to S. nigra subsp. caerulea (Feb 2018, SP). GSB updated to Lathrop Library (Dec 2018, SP). Family updated from Caprifoliaceae to Adoxaceae (Nov 2019, SP). Family updated to Viburnaceae, binomial is back to S. mexicana; Galvez Street opposite Memorial Way location removed, hospital location added; edits; all locations up to date (May 2023, SP).