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Western Blue Elder, Blue Elderberry - Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea


Family: Adoxaceae - Muskroot Family Genus Common Name: Elderberry Native Status: NativeDicot Perennial Shrub Tree
Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea - Western Blue Elder, Blue Elderberry. Western Blue Elder is a shrub or small tree that grows up to 25 feet tall and may have many stems, forming dense thickets. The leaves are pinnate, with usually 3 to 9 lanceolate, serrated leaflets. The plant has large cymes of small white flowers which will produce blue berries in late summer which can be used in jams and to make wine, although the raw berries in large quantities may be poisonous. The unripe berries, the stems, and the leaves may be poisonous.

It was formerly classified as the separate species Sambucus cerulea. Another subspecies, S. nigra ssp. canadensis (formerly S. canadensis, and these plants are still treated as separate species in the esteemed Weakley's Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States) is known as the Black Elderberry. Recent classification changes have also moved the genus Sambucus, along with Viburnum, out of the Honeysuckle Family and into the Muskroot Family.

This subspecies of the Sambucus nigra is not as widespread as ssp. canadensis, Black Elderberry. Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea is found in 12 western states. The color of the berries is the most sure way to tell the difference if you are in the 7 states where you may find either species - Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea may be taller - it can reach 25 feet in height - and may have as few as 3 leaflets, while Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis usually is rarely taller than 10 feet, and will usually have a minimum of 5 leaflets.

Found in:
AZ, CA, CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, TX, UT, WA, WY

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Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea

Distribution of Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea in the United States and Canada:
USDA Plants Distribution Map temporarily unavailable.
Blue=Native; Grey=Introduced

Map from USDA Plants Database:
USDA, NRCS. 2017. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 21 Oct 2017). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

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Site: Kleinschmidt Grade, Adams County, ID Date: 2011-June-19Photographer: Gerald C. Williamson
Nikon D7000
Tamron SP 90MM f/2.8 AF Macro
The inflorescence is at the end of a stem, and is described as a panicle of cymes in the Jepson Eflora. That summation describes multiple stems within the inflorescence, with each stem containing multiple pediceled flowers. Each of these relatively flat groups of flowers starts blooming generally with the central blossoms. The overall inflorescence is more or flat-topped.
Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea

Site: Kleinschmidt Grade, Adams County, ID Date: 2011-June-19Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
The individual white flowers of Western Blue Elder usually will have 5 spreading lobes, although there may be fewer. It will also usually have 5 stamens, sometimes only 4. The stigma has 3 to 5 lobes.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea

Site: Kleinschmidt Grade, Adams County, ID Date: 2011-June-19Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
Western Blue Elder is frequently as wide as it is tall, and will have many white, many-flowered inflorescences.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea

Site: Kleinschmidt Grade, Adams County, ID Date: 2011-June-19Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
The leaves of Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea are odd-pinnate, with 3 to 9 leaflets. The elliptic or lanceolate leaflets have finely serrated edges, and have a sharp tip. They may or may not be hairy.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea

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All content except USDA Plants Database map Copyright Gerald C. Williamson 2017
Photographs Copyright owned by the named photographer