Sambucus Mexicana - I think!

This weekend I did a quite a lot in the garden, and so did Woodrat - and another whole day lies ahead of us. But more of that in another post, I hope. One thing I did was dig up an elderberry volunteer and put it in a pot for a neighbor. It's the elderberry I'll write more about today.

It's an amazing thing: it's only since I've been paying attention that the elderberries have suddenly appeared around here. How does that work? You can't not notice a sprouting bush - they do grow quickly. And at this time of year their blossoms are stunning, all over the neighborhood and beyond! How did I miss this?

I think our local elderberries are blue elderberry, Sambucus mexicana. To be sure, I went off googling to check and got a fun random hit:
... [T]he authentic Pre-Contact aboriginal flutes were tuned to ancient musical scales and, without a mouthpiece or block, they are so difficult to play that even the best flute players today find them impossible to play.

The true historical California Indian elderberry flute is tuned in the ancient scales and represents the Rosetta stone of aboriginal North American music.

Wow - that is very cool! As a very amateur flute player myself, I love the idea of a mysterious lost music, whose scale is locked away in an impossible-to-play ancient flute. (I don't, of course, love the nasty history that is implied by this.)

And - something else I had not noticed, in Jepson it says:
Etymology: (Greek, the name of a musical instrument made from wood of this genus)
Hey, maybe I'll go play a samba on my sambucus!

I did also read about people being poisoned from eating elderberry parts. Eat ye not of the leaves or other parts, and only cooked ripe berries, is the advice I read.

But mostly I was reading to try and establish if we have blue or red elderberries here.

All of the elderberries I've observed around here have the same large pinnate leaves, serrated, pale green with a bluish cast, with one of the leaflets on the end. The leaves seem to be huge on the baby plants:

And as the bush gets larger the leaves get smaller.

So how do I tell if I have Sambucus mexicana - AKA Sambucus nigra caerulea, AKA blue elderberry - or Sambucus racemosa, red elderberry? Both are native to California and beyond.

Well, first the berries, which are colored as per the name. But this is the first year I've noticed elderberries and I don't know yet. They are all green.

Also red elderberry prefers the wet. Our volunteers are in dry chaparral.

Also red elderberry has dome shaped inflorescences, not the flat plate shaped ones. But ours are - confusing.

Many like the above do have a sort of dome shape. And some are flat.

(Also the above shows how messy the shrubby ones can get.)

However, on checking Jepson, it seems the red elderberry has a dominant axis, like a pole with the other bits off like a christmas tree, and these did not. They are like flat plates that just sort of curl over. So I'm still leaning to the more likely choice, blue elderberry.

Las Pilitas has a simple rule of thumb: "REMEMBER IF IT IS LOW ELEVATION IT IS S.MEXICANA" - We are at 900 feet or so, pretty low. But I don't know if it's a hard and fast rule. Jepson does not give a "not below" listing, just a "not above" listing: 3000m for blue, 3500m for red

I also found an enormous old elderberry tree with trunk three-4 feet in diameter and - well I don't know but it could be 80 feet tall? Whereas Jepson classifies them as a shrub or small tree up to 8 meters.

(It's behind a deer fence on a neighbor's property.)

Hm. Suspicion: could it be the old tree is a planted garden elderberry, which has spawned all these others in the neighborhood? It looks older than the current development here which is about 45 years old, but they do grow rapidly.

There are a number of upright forms of the elderberry growing around the roadside too. They show the rather attractive bark, and also how those shoots that just spring up so quickly become thick but not very attractive branches, sticking up at odd angles.

Town mouse has a nursery bought blue elderberry growing rapidly and handsomely in her garden, and I'll be interested to see how my volunteers do compared to hers.

I do hope to do some formative pruning, though I'm not confident in my abilities as yet. I let the deer and bunnies do the formative pruning around here!

That's a volunteer coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica and this is its second formative pruning - the bunnies did the first one, and then I put the cage around. Now it's grown to the top of the cage, the deer have done a follow up. I'm sad but it's just as well as this is close to the house and is strictly illegal from the fire safety point of view.

Yes, there is also the question of fire safety. I'm happy to nurture the two or three elderberry volunteers that have appeared in the lower chaparral, but I'm not so sure about some that are right up on the flat bit near our home. If I keep them low and well watered, is that OK? I really want to use something taller along the fence line - where they have conveniently appeared!

Well, I'll keep you posted on the final decision - blue or red - when the berries color up!


Christine said…
I was just researching this one, too after becoming enchanted with the scent of the flowers. I found that some elderberry flowers can be used as a flavoring in ice cream or liquors, but I need to do more research. Still, pretty cool!
Interesting post Country Mouse. I haven't seen any elderberry here, although I probably also had no idea what to look for before your post. I'm curious now if you have the native, or a garden variety courtesy of your neighbor's tree. As for formative pruning by those who use teeth rather than garden shears...I feel your pain. Hopefully the deer will give your coffeeberry a chance to recover before clipping it again.
A meal that was served at a plant society meeting last year included a healing tea made from the just-opened flowers. I couldn't be sure, but I think I felt better after the tea. The elderberries around here look amazing this time of year. Space is the main reason I don't grow it. It gets to be quite large fairly quickly--which really can be a plus in a garden where you want to occupy space without too many plants.
Town Mouse said…
Ha! The formative pruning I do on my elderberry is this: Wack everything off about 3 feet above ground after the leaves have dropped. That plant really wants to take over the garden, and that's the only way to keep it in check. Of course, deer might also help.
My husband is no cook, but he makes the BEST elderberry waffles! Red or blue ... fine with me. Interesting post.
Country Mouse said…
Well I'm no cook either, Pam, so maybe I can handle elderberry waffles - sounds good!
ebw-pete said…
be sure to warn folks that the red elderberry in california has been the cause of a lot of poisoning. although it's the preferred one in parts east, the western one - particularly in california is poisonous. it also grows right on the coast around here, so i don't get the las pilitas rule. ?? the alpine one is quite different from the coastal red - which is GORGEOUS and easier than you think to grow. the flower petioles on mine are a deep ruby red color and translucent. it can grow 20 ft in a single season, and needs some pruning to look it's best in the garden. there is a blue one in the center of my nursery which is 50 ft around! your photos are definitely of the blue one.
Country Mouse said…
Pete thanks so much for that info - I just got back from Tassajara, and saw some there just like the ones around here, so I eliminated a garden variety. Thanks for the info that yours in your nursery is so large - that seemed unclear from the literature. Now as far as fire safety... I hope I can keep them along our fence line and prune them aka lollipop them a bit and keep them fairly small. Corrective pruning I'm OK at but formative pruning gives me the willies. I need some tuition in that area.
ryan said…
Red and blue elderberries are native to the Bay Area, so that Las Pilitas rule seems dubious. Maybe it's just for Southern California, where the red one probably wouldn't like the heat at lower elevations. Your plants look like the blue one to me.