Garden Oracle / Drought and Heat Tolerant Gardening / Tucson - Phoenix - Arizona - California

Growing Blue Elderberry:
Sambucus cerulea

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Botanical Overview

Members of the Elderberry family (Adoxaceae), Sambucus species are native to the northern hemisphere. Sambucus nigra, Black Elderberry, is found in Europe and Western Asia. Sambucus cerulea, Blue or Mexican Elderberry, is found in Western North America from Canada into Mexico. Sambucus canadensis, American Black Elderberry, is native to North America. S. cerulea and S. canadensis overlap ranges in Western North America. Sambucus racemosa, Red Elderberry, is found in limited pockets in the Western United States and Canada.


Form: A multi-stemmed, suckering, large shrub or small tree.
Lifespan: Possibly 60 years.
Leaf retention: Drought and cold deciduous.
Growth rate: Moderate to rapid.
Mature Size: 6-16' high and 8-20' wide.
Flowers: Fragrant, yellow to white, tiny, in clusters. Edible when cooked, or fried like fritters, or used to make tea or wine.
Bloom: Two months or more starting in late winter or spring, then again in late summer and fall.
Self-fruitful: Possible but rare. A second plant will be needed within 50' to provide cross pollination.
Years before fruiting: 2-3.
Fruit: Blue-black or purple berries, one-eighth to one-quarter inch in diameter depending on water, edible when ripe. Berries of other species must be cooked to be edible. No berries are produced without sufficient water.
Months for fruit to ripen: 5-15 days. The berries are ripe when they are fully dark with a whitish coating.
Storage after harvest: Place in a sealed container without washing and store in a refrigerator up to 5 days, or wash and freeze, or wash and prepare for wine or to cook.
Leaves: Dark green, lance-shaped, sawtooth edged leaflets.
Stems: No thorns.
Roots: A deep taproot with an extensive root mass that produces new suckers (canes) yearly which aid in fruit production.
Cultivars of Note: There are no named cultivars of Sambucus cerulea, Blue Elderberry, as of this date. Sambucus cerulea var. neomexicana is a recognized wild variety.
Wildlife: The flowers attract bees and pollinating insects. The berries attract birds and small mammals. The plant can be a nesting site for hummingbirds. New growth and young plants are browsed by deer.
Toxic / Danger: All parts are poisonous except ripe, blue to purple berries and cooked flowers. Green berries are poisonous. Red berries of Red Elderberry and other species are poisonous if eaten raw but are edible when cooked.
Origin: North America.

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Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 4-10 for Blue Elderberry, 4-8 for American Black Elderberry.
Chill hours: Very low, possibly 100-300.
Heat tolerant: Yes.
Drought tolerant: Yes, but loses leaves and fruit.
Sun: Full sun to part shade.
Planting: Place rooted cuttings and seedlings, that are at least one year old, in full sun in well draining soil. Space the plants at least 15' apart.
Soil: This plant is tolerant of soil types with a pH range of 6.1-7.8 (slightly acidic to slightly alkaline). It survives in soil that is well-drained with low organic content, but the best fruit production occurs in enriched, slightly acidic soil.
Fertilize: Use composted manure for rapid growth.
Water once established: Deep water once or twice a week when flowering and fruiting. Signs of insufficient water are dropped fruit, dropped leaves, and flowers that do not develop fruit. Water deeply once a month when not flowering or fruiting.
Mulch: Unnecessary.
First Year Care: New seedlings and cuttings must stay in pots with moist soil in all day part shade until they are one year old.
Prune: In late winter, during dormancy, remove dead, weak and broken canes, as well as all canes older than 3 years. Flowers and fruit develop on tips of new growth, especially on laterals of previous year's canes. After three years, canes produce few flowers.
Litter: Low.
Propagation: Semi-hardwood cuttings with at least 2 nodes are taken during bloom, making an angled cut at the bottom, treated with naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) formulation (rooting hormone), planted in a pot with potting mix, and watered. The pot is planted in the ground outside in a shady location and tented with a plastic bag to keep the mix moist. Rooting success is over 60% with this method for this species. Transplant carefully once roots develop because the young roots are fragile.
Seed should be cold stratified for 4 months, then planted in a cool, shady location. Seed does not grow true to the parents.
Uses: Ornamental, edible berries for jams, jellies, syrup and wine. Blue and purple berries can be eaten raw.


Elderberry was formerly classified as a member of the Honeysuckle family. Sambucus cerulea was formerly known as Sambucus caerulea, Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea, and Sambucus mexicana.
Sambucus cerulea, Blue Elderberry, grows wild in the southwestern mountain regions of the United States, and is used as a spring ornamental shrub in its native region.
There is still much disagreement as to proper scientific names and relationships for many Elderberry species. This website uses World Flora Online as the definitive guide to plant species names.

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Elderberry: Sambucus cerulea - flowers

Elderberry: Sambucus cerulea - fruit

Elderberry: Sambucus cerulea - leaves

Elderberry: Sambucus cerulea

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Latest update: February, 2021