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American Elder

Common Name: American Elder.

Scientific Name: Sambucus Nigra ssp. Canadensis.

What to look for?  A tall shrub with large, flat-topped clusters of tiny, creamy white flowers. There are usually several American Elders growing together forming a thicket.  The shallow, rhizomatous root system causes these dense, clonal thickets. This woody shrub will have bright green, oblong leaves set oppositely in pairs. Most of the leaflets are held on short stalks, but the terminal leaflet is on a longer stalk, where the flowers occur. The individual white flowers are tiny; but there are dozens that create the beautiful cluster. Flowers give way to clusters of black or purple fruits in late summer.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? There are several American Elders located west of our western pond off of the Reckinger Road turn-around – just out our backdoor.

How big are they? The American Elder shrub may grow up from four to ten feet tall. The oval leaves are approximately six inches long and over two inches across. Each cluster of flowers is about eight inches in diameter.

Where do they grow and thrive? The native American Elder is quite common, occurring in every county of Illinois. It is located in the eastern half of the United States and adjacent parts of southern Canada. Habitats include river-bottom prairies, moist meadows, on banks of a stream, and along the edges of woodlands.

When do they bloom? The blooming period of the American Elder occurs from late spring to mid-summer and lasts about four weeks.

Do birds, insects or other wildlife associate with this plant? The flowers of the American Elder provide pollen as a floral reward to insects, including a variety of bees, flies, and beetles. White-tailed deer browse the twigs, foliage, and fruit during the summer. Some birds eat the small fruits of the American Elder, including the Northern Cardinal, American Robin, House Finch, Cedar Waxwing, and White-throated Sparrow. American Elder is also outstanding as nesting cover for small birds.

Interesting Facts About the American Elder:

  • The genus name, Sambucus, refers to a Greek musical instrument, the sambuke, made from elderwood; the species name Nigra means 'black' or 'dark' and refers to the dark color of the mature berries; and the subspecies name Canadensis refers to "of Canada.".

  • 'Sambucus' was derived from the word for an ancient musical instrument and refers to the elder stems, which are filled with soft pith that is easily removed to form a flute or whistle.

  • Although raw berries are toxic, berries that have been dried or cooked are not harmful and are used in jellies and jams.

For more information on the American Elder and sources of information used in this blog (these are several of the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit Illinois Wildflowers, Friends of the Wildflower Garden, Missouri Botanical Gardens, and Morton Arboretum.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, insects and plants. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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