The elderberry types we are going to discuss are red, black and blue. What are the differences between red, black and blue elderberries? The differences are subtle but are very noteworthy, and it is important to understand why certain types of elderberry are used for specific purposes.
The first thing that comes to mind when discussing elderberries is the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra). This type produces dark purple or blackberries that you will often see used for culinary and medical purposes. Black elderberries contribute to the making of wines, tonics, extracts, syrups, pies, and jams. Some of those things are good to have, and some are not. Black elderberries are a reliable source of anthocyanins and polyphenols because of their dark pigments, which fight against cancer and serve as a boost for cardiovascular health and the immune system. If you live in plant hardiness Zones 3 to 7, you can grow black elderberries as they thrive on moderate temperatures.
The red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) ² is a plant native to Europe, and temperate to Asia and North America. You can find red elderberry in most of the United States and Canada, with the exception of the far north of Alaska and Canada. Plant hardiness Zones 3 to 7 are recommended for the red elderberry. This type of elderberry can sometimes (keyword: sometimes) be eaten fresh, but it is strongly recommended to always cook these berries before consumption. Red elderberry often gets a negative reputation for being poisonous, but only the seeds are considered poisonous. If not cooked properly, they can be toxic. One downside of red elderberries is that they have a foul, skunk smell.
The primary functions of the blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea) ³ are medicinal tools and as a dye for products. Like the black elderberry, the blue elderberry produces a dark berry. Blue elderberries differ greatly from black and red elderberries when it comes to plant hardiness zones. Blue elderberries prefer Zones 4 to 10. You will most likely see this type of elderberry in states like Oregon, Washington and California. Like the red elderberry, they are edible but are not desirable for fresh consumption because they have a bunch of small seeds which are poisonous. Blue elderberries must also be cooked properly to become completely edible. The fruits themselves are dark blueish in appearance and are coated with a waxy powder.
It takes a good eye to notice the subtle differences between elderberry plants. There are many other plants out there that have purple berries or clusters of small white flowers, with some of them being poisonous. Don’t always assume that you have found an elderberry bush just because you see dark berries or beautiful flower sprays.
For starters, let’s compare the traits of the red and blue elderberry. When it comes to growing, the red elderberry prefers either partial or full sunlight. The blue elderberry only prefers full sunlight. The red elderberry prefers mild amounts of moisture whereas the blue prefers a dry surface. Both red and blue elderberry plants have 6- to 12-inch long leaves, but the red has only 5 to 7 lanceloate leaflets, whereas the blue has 5 to 9 leaflets. Blue elderberries tend to grow taller than red as blue elderberries typically measure at 25 feet tall and 10 feet wide, while red elderberries measure at 20 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
The Black Beauty Elderberry ⁴ that was introduced from England in 2003 can grow up to 10 feet tall and wide and prefers medium amounts of moisture and partial to full sunlight like the red elderberry. However, the pink blooming color of its flowers are different than the red and blue elderberries, which bloom white flowers. The American Elderberry ⁵ (black) is a mirror image of the Black Beauty, but produces a white blooming color for its flowers.
All elderberry types have different bloom times. Red elderberries have a bloom time from April to May. The Black Beauty Elderberry has a bloom time from May to June. The American Elderberry has a bloom time from May to August. The blue elderberry’s bloom time is from April to June.
The American Elderberry attracts bees, butterflies and birds. The nectar of red elderberry flowers attract butterflies. Blue and black elderberries are the best options for wine making as their fruits have that natural sweet taste when they become ripe.
¹ W.L. Applequist (January 12, 2015) A Brief Review of Recent Controversies in the Taxonomy and Nomenclature of Sambucus nigra sensu lato ncbi.nlm.nih.gov https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4859216/
² Dr, Charles Brun, Washington State University http://pnwplants.wsu.edu/PlantDisplay.aspx?PlantID=475
³ Dr. Charles Brun, Washington State University http://pnwplants.wsu.edu/PlantDisplay.aspx?PlantID=455
⁴ Dr. Charles Brun, Washington State University http://pnwplants.wsu.edu/PlantDisplay.aspx?PlantID=443
⁵ Dr. Charles Brun, Washington State University http://pnwplants.wsu.edu/PlantDisplay.aspx?PlantID=430