Red-Berried Elderberry

Illustration of red-berried elderberry leaves, flowers, fruits
Species of Conservation Concern
Safety Concerns
Scientific Name
Sambucus pubens
Adoxaceae (moschatels) (formerly Caprifoliaceae)

Red-berried elderberry is a shrub or small tree up to 24 feet tall, not forming colonies.

Leaves are opposite, compound, 3–7 inches long with 5–7 leaflets; leaflets 2–4 inches long, ¾–1¼ inches wide, broadly lance-shaped to broadest below the middle, blades often with uneven sides; margin sharply toothed; upper surface dark green; lower surface paler, hairy at first, smooth later. End leaflet stalk is ¼–1 inch long, while the side leaflet stalks are short or absent.

Twigs are hairy when young, gray to reddish brown or yellowish brown; smooth later. Pores are prominent. Bark on trunk is tight, greenish brown or grayish brown, smooth; pores raised. Wood soft; a narrow ring of soft greenish-white material around the brown pith.

Flowering is in April–May. Flowers are white, about ⅛ inch across, in dense egg-shaped or pyramidal clusters 2–4 inches long, 1¼–2 inches wide, with usually only 1 elongated main stalk; petals 5.

Fruits mature June–August. Fruits are red, semiglossy, berrylike, egg-shaped, about ⅛ inch across, in pyramidal clusters up to 4 inches long. Juice yellowish. Fruits are unpalatable, with an unpleasant flavor. Seeds 3 per fruit.

Key identifiers:

  • Flower and fruit clusters pyramidal or egg-shaped, with only 1 main, upright stem
  • Fruits red (may be yellow elsewhere)
  • Fruits unpalatable
  • Pith in stems brown
Other Common Names
Stinking Elderberry
Scarlet Elder

Height: to 24 feet.

Where To Find

In Missouri, known only from Marion County, in the northeast portion of the state.

In Missouri, occurs on shaded, north- to northeast-facing wooded limestone bluffs and ledges and mesic upland forests; in our state it is found only in Marion County. Endangered in Missouri. Once established, this species is said to grow rapidly. Its large purple buds are a striking contrast in the winter against a background of snow.

A Missouri Species of Conservation Concern, it is endangered in our state. Formerly called Sambucus racemosa ssp. pubens. This species is more common in states to our north and in the Appalachian mountains. It occurs in our state as an ice age relict: it is one of the plants whose range shifted south, ahead of glacial advances; then, as the climate warmed and glaciers retreated back north, some populations died out, others migrated north, and some — like populations of this plant in Missouri — remained in pockets of cool, moist sites such as north-facing bluffs.

Elderberries (genus Sambucus), along with the viburnums, moschatels, and other members of the new family Adoxaceae, used to all be considered part of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). The Caprifoliaceae still exists, but it is now a smaller group.

The stems, leaves, and roots of elderberry species are poisonous, and ingestion can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Elderberries have been used medicinally in the past, taken as strong purgatives or applied externally for skin disorders. The fruits of this particular species are unpalatable, and some references list them as mildly poisonous.

At least 23 species of birds eat the fruit. Raccoons, squirrels, and other mammals eat the fruit, too.

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Similar Species
About Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines in Missouri
There are no sharp dividing lines between trees, shrubs, and woody vines, or even between woody and nonwoody plants. “Wood” is a type of tissue made of cellulose and lignin that many plants develop as they mature — whether they are “woody” or not. Trees are woody plants over 13 feet tall with a single trunk. Shrubs are less than 13 feet tall, with multiple stems. Vines require support or else sprawl over the ground.