This site is for people who like plants -- growers, enthusiasts, aesthetes, novices and professionals, those who appreciate wild things and those who appreciate the cultivated. I garden in Chelsea, and I've been visiting people's yards for 20+ years in the course of my work. My goal is to make this blog a community project, so if you share my interests, please consider becoming a participant and contributing content -- Guerin. Info:

Friday, June 24, 2011

Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries

And what do elderberries smell like? To know that, you first have to learn to identify them, and now is a good a time as any.

Elderberries growing near Cavanaugh Lake
Our local elderberry species (Sambucus canadensis) thrives best in full sunlight in moist conditions. Where I took today's photo, I could hear the calls of a common yellow-throat, a yellow warbler and red-winged blackbirds. Elderberry will also show up along the edges of woodlands and roadways.

Common yellowthroat (photo stolen from internet)
And what about elderberry pancakes?  I've never made them, but I have on more than one occasion stuffed my face with a mouthful of ripe elderberries. On a scale of 1 to 10 (extremely pleasant to decidedly unpleasant) I give it a solid 5; but it is one of those things you just have to do if want to know this plant.

(And that's my general feeling about getting to know plants -- sassafras wouldn't be half as dear if I had never chewed on its twig; a fall doesn't pass without my experiencing the lemony drool you get when you chew on a couple of ripe fruit of the "tooth-ache tree" (Zanthoxylum americanum); and this past month I almost (almost!) got my son to volunteer to submit to the glass-sliver-like pain-in-the-tongue you get when you bite into a jack-in-the-pulpit tuber.)

But . . back to elderberries -- they have pinnately-compound leaves that are arranged in pairs along the twigs (the only other local woody with meets that description is ash). The twigs are soft and easy to collapse, in no way akin to those of  a proper tree.

Black elderberry, in actual living color
An elderberry you would be more likely to encounter at a commercial garden center is the European black elderberry (Sambucus nigra).  I've seen many miserable-looking specimens in peoples' yards, and the one I planted in my garden lasted about 48 hours. It's grown best by people who don't know what they are doing. I speculate that constant moisture and a mucky soil are key.


  1. Oh I'd love to see that bird! (The Common Yellow throat). I also love seeing the Elderberry in bloom right now. Hope to plant some of these local natives near our pond once we manage to get the Autumn Olive cut down. So many invasives, so little time....

  2. Black elderberry is thriving in my champaign Illinois garden. Has quadrupled in size despite the drought. It's right near our roofs downspout. Everything else in the garden is withered.