Sambucus cerulea

Blue elderberry


The Basics

Taxonomy: Kingdom - Plantae (plants). Subkingdom - Tracheobionta (vascular plants). Superdivision - Spermatophyta (seed plants). Division - Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants). Class - Magnoliopsida. Order - Dipsacales. Family - Caprifoliaceae . Genus - Sambucus L (elderberry) - Species - Sambucus cerulea Raf. (blue elderberry)

Ecology: Blue elderberry usually occurs in early seral communities or in openings in moist forest habitats and in moist areas within drier, more open habitats. It is part of the riparian communities of the Central Valley of California, and it is frequently associated with alder (Alnus spp.) and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) communities. Blue elderberry is not often used as an indicator species. Associated Species: Blue elderberry tends to grow as individual plants among other woody plants. Some common associates are serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), rose(Rosa spp.), gooseberries (Ribes spp.), big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), brome (Bromus spp.), and wheatgrass (Agropyron spp.)


Blue elderberry is a short lived, shade intolerant (or slightly tolerant) shrub or small tree, usually between 6.5 to 13 feet (2 to 4 m) tall, but sometimes reaching 20 feet (6 m). Young twigs are soft and pithy but the wood is quite hard with grayish bark or thin, dark brown irregularly furrowed and ridged bark. There may be a thick taproot with fibrous, spreading, lateral roots.The leaves are opposite and odd-pinnate with five to nine serrate leaflets.The flowers are perfect, white or cream colored, and borne in a cyme. The entire inflorescence is about 1.6 to 5.9 inches (4 to 15 [20] cm) across and nearly flat topped. The fruit is globose, edible, and blue-black with a glaucous bloom that makes it appear to be powder blue.


Fire effects vary with season, severity and intensity, site characteristics, and the age and vigor of the plants; however, fire generally kills aboveground parts of blue elderberry which then sprout vigorously from the root crown. A severe fire might expose and kill the root and stem buds from which sprouting occurs. Fire also scarifies buried seed, and germination usually occurs the first growing season following the fire...Blue elderberry is able to resprout, and seed buried in seed banks germinates following fire. Since it is short lived and shade intolerant, blue elderberry is usually absent from the understory of closed-canopy forests before fire occurs and must rely on seed banks for regeneration.


Reproduction of blue elderberry is sexual through small nutlets, three to five of which are contained in each edible, berrylike fruit. There are good seed crops almost every year, and the seeds are dispersed by birds and other animals that eat the fruit. Seeds retain their viability for up to 16 years in storage. Blue elderberry seeds have a hard seed coat and dormant embryos that delay germination. Heat treatment or sulfuric acid scarification and stratification hasten germination.

Vegetative reproduction is limited to vigorous coppicing if the stems are killed or injured.

Species Distribution


Silvics of North America
Burns, R.M., and B.H. Honkala. 1990. Silvics of North America (Volume 1: Conifers, Volume 2: Hardwoods). USDA Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 654.

USDA Plants Database
USDA, NRCS. 2016. The PLANTS Database. National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

USFS Plant Database
Habeck, R. J. 1992. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Flora of North America
Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. 1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. 19+ vols. New York and Oxford.

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
Burke Museum. 2016. Abies amabilis [Online]. University of Washington.