Tree Tuesday: Respecting Our Elders – the Red Elderberry

red.jpegHow can I ever get it together/Without a wife in line/To pick the crop and get me hot/On elderberry wine

Lyrics from Elton John’s Elderberry Wine, 1972

Like the pin cherry/merisier of last week’s column, the red elderberry is in full fruit – at least in the Gaspésie where this photo was taken – and its clusters of tiny, scarlet berries distinguish it from other trees now in fruit. In this photo, for instance, you will notice the difference between the red fruit of the elderberry and the orange berries of the showy mountain ash (sorbier décoratif, Sorbus decora) to the right.

You may also notice that while both trees have compound leaves, leaves that are made up of numerous leaflets, the elderberry’s leaves are oppositely paired on each twig, while the leaves of the mountain ash grow alternately on the twig. In other words, each leaf of the elderberry grows exactly opposite another leaf while the leaves of the mountain ash grow one on one side, one a few centimetres farther, staggered on the twig.The pale grey trunks that you see belong to neither berried tree but to the trembling aspens (peuplier faux-tremble, Populus tremuloides) growing behind.

Both the red elderberry (sureau rouge/Sambucus racemosa) and the mountain ash are native to the sugar maple forest domain of south-western Quebec that includes Montreal. Earlier today, I took a brief tour of the lowlands of the east flank of Mount Royal to find my favourite red elderberry that grows beneath one of the old silver maples but birds had already picked the berries! Still, keep your eyes cued for bursts of tiny red berries and you’ll likely find some on the mountain or in any of the other natural forests on the island of Montreal.

You may also find a very similar looking tree bearing blue-black berries. This is the other native elderberry of Eastern Canada, the white elderberry (sureau blanc, Sambucus canadensis). While similar, the two elderberries have a different shaped cluster of tiny white flowers and don’t flower at the same period. The red species flowers in spring in a pyramidal cluster while the common flowers in the summer in a flat cluster. The other distinguishing trait is the number of leaflets: the white elderberry tends to have more, from five to 11 while the red has from five to seven.

I was happy to find this pictured elderberry on the fringe of our Gaspé campsite of a few days ago because it gave me a pretext to talk about this common though often forgotten tree. The Gazette’s Marian Scott in her recent, excellent article The Fresh, Young Face of Farming, for instance described the elderberry (and the choke cherry) as “rare fruit trees.” I think what she meant is that today such native trees are rarely valued – much less cultivated — for their nutritive and medicinal qualities whereas not long ago various species of elderberries were widely picked both for their fruit and flower.

I recently tasted some delicious elderflower water, made and bottled in Britain, and learned that the drink is easy to make. Next June or July when the flowers of the white elderberry, S. canadensis, are in bloom – I’ll post the recipe once I’ve tested it, of course.

You may also be wondering about elderberry wine. This is made from the fruit of the white elderberry, the one with the dark blue berries that are close to being ripe. (Sadly, the berries of the red elderberry, pretty as they are, are dry and tasteless and best left to the avian set.) There are numerous recipes on the web for making wine as well as pies. Take advantage of the blue bounty!

One last thing: While I’ve noticed no red elderberry trees planted as ornamentals, I’ve seen several fern-leafed (sureau tenuifolia, Sambucus racemosa cultivar Tenuifolia) elders with scarlet berries. There is one, for instance, in the flower bed in Jeanne Mance Park, at the Park Avenue crossing light across from the statue.

This just in: There’s a white elderberry, heavy with fruit, beside the fence surrounding the community composter near Duluth Street and Park Avenue. Nice tasting fruit!


  1. I’ve nothing to add, but just wanted to say how much I love these tree tuesday stories.

  2. “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries…”

    Source, please. (This should take all of 3 seconds).

  3. Monty Python’s Holy Grail, of course.

    (And now I want to taste some.)

  4. Do you have a mailing list so I can get on your Tree Tuesday stories?

  5. Served with dessert at Coin de Feu restaurent in St Barbe Quebec. They have trees growing in back of the restaurant.

  6. It would probably be a good idea to mention that all parts of the elderberries (including the unripe berries) are toxic, except the ripe berries. Some sources include the seeds.

  7. Where in the Gaspe did you find this growing, and can I have some cuttings? *grin*

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