Red Elderberry

2017 May 27
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These rather attractive shrubs mostly grow in slightly moist, shady areas. This particular one was at the side of the little stream that runs continuously in the ditch beside our road. I photographed it on July 5, 2016.


The compound leaves, and bright red berries that grow in a distinctive umbrella-like cluster, are pretty distinctive. This looks like a Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa.


The berries are plentiful, and very colorful. Too bad they’re toxic.


Oh, they’re not irrevocably toxic, it is reported that cooking destroys the toxin (cyanidin glycoside)[1] to the point where they are probably safe to eat. Still, they are more toxic than the more-commonly-cultivated Black Elderberry, which is commonly used to make jams and wines[2]. The fully-ripe black elderberry fruits are considered non-toxic, but it is still recommended that they be used only to make cooked foods. We used to have black elderberries growing wild along the creek that crossed our farm when I was a kid, and my mother used to make elderberry jelly from them. But all we seem to have up here in the UP is the red ones.

[1] Cyanogenic glycosides are produced by a lot of plants, mostly as an herbivore defense. They consist of a mostly-sugar backbone connected to a cyanide group, and plants that produce them mostly store them in vacuoles in their cells. When the cells are crushed, the vacuoles release the glycosides, and an enzyme pops off the cyanide group, making highly toxic hydrogen cyanide. Something like 11% of all cultivated plants produce cyanogenic glycosides somewhere in their tissues, so there are a lot of food plants where there are only parts that are safe to eat, or are only safe to eat after cooking. Cooking evidently destroys its ability to produce cyanide, which is probably one of the things that made cooking such an advantageous thing to do to our food.

[2] Black elderberry wine is non-toxic and perfectly safe to drink, unless you are drinking with the Brewster Sisters (but that’s a special case)

5 Responses
  1. Lon permalink
    May 27, 2017

    Insert obligatory Monty Python reference here. 🙂

  2. Carole permalink
    May 27, 2017

    Lovely red berries. Wonder if the birds can eat them. We only gave Florida Elderberry (Sanbucus simpsonii)

  3. May 30, 2017

    Lon: OK!

  4. May 30, 2017

    Carole: Apparently yes, a lot of birds do like to eat red elderberries

    I did find one paper[1] where they studied cedar waxwings, and found that the birds evidently are not affected by the cyanogenic glycosides like those found in elderberries. Instead of the glycosides breaking down in the digestive tract to release cyanide like they do in mammals, in the birds it mostly passes through their digestive tract unchanged. So basically, the plants that use this toxin are optimizing their fruits to be consumed and dispersed by birds while discouraging mammals.

    [1] Struempf et al., 1999, “The Cyanogenic Glycoside Amygdalin Does Not Deter Consumption of Ripe Fruit by Cedar Waxwings”, The Auk, v. 116, n3, pp. 749-758

  5. June 5, 2017

    Love the Arsenic and Old Lace film clip! I did not know that about the red elderberries. I’ll be careful.

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