Last Updated on October 8, 2021
Wondering whether there’s anything you can do with the red elderberries you discovered on your ramble through the woods? There’s some disagreement about the safety of using red berried elder for food and medicine, so let’s dive into the research and clear some things up about red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) often confused with its highly edible and medicinal cousin, black elderberry, or Sambucus nigra.
WHAT IS RED ELDERBERRY?
Red elderberry, red-berried elder, or Sambucus racemosa is a species of elderberry with — you guessed it — red berries instead of the black or blue elderberries eagerly gathered by fans of the beloved home remedy.
While working on my book about elderberries, I spent a lot of time researching Sambucus nigra and Sambucus canadensis. I’ve been asked many times about Sambucus racemosa, or red elderberry, a shrub (some call it a tree) that grows wild all over North America, by people hoping they can use it for some of the same purposes.
It seemed high time to write something about red elderberry to answer these questions.
IS RED ELDERBERRY EDIBLE?
So many people have looked at the abundant red elderberries and asked, Can you eat red elderberries? Are red elderberries edible?
Short answer: Not particularly. Sambucus racemosa has given many people pretty bad belly aches, though Native Americans used red berried elder for food and medicine after somewhat extensive preparation, including removing all seeds.
Longer answer: It depends on who you talk to and how wide your interpretation of the term edible is. Prepared correctly (more on this in a moment), Sambucus racemosa could be used for food, but in general, since black elderberries are so much more palatable and so much less likely to cause pain, few people bother with red elderberries. Those who have mostly report that they taste pretty bad.
Unlike black elderberries — which get a bad rap as “poisonous,” though their toxicity is quite low — red berried elder is considerably higher in compounds that can make you very sick, called cyanogenic glycosides.
SO IS IT SAFE TO EAT RED BERRIED ELDER?
Most people agree that uncooked red elderberries are to be avoided, and even cooked red elderberry seeds shouldn’t be consumed.
The ethnobotanical information from the native peoples who have used Sambucus racemosa suggests that red elderberries were thoroughly processed before consumption. One archeological study reported widespread use of red berried elder in prehistoric sites in the Pacific Northwest.
Several twentieth-century ethnobotanical studies record ways different tribes prepared elderberries. While a few consumed red elderberries fresh, others cooked them into jelly or pastes. Some tribes dried red berried elder and combined it with other fruits to improve their flavor, while others submerged cooked red elderberries in running streams for weeks to make them taste better and reduce their toxicity.
Few foraging books or herbalism books mention Sambucus racemosa, as black elderberry tastes so much better, has more research supporting its medicinal use, and is readily available for purchase or in the wild. Here’s more on the benefits of black elderberry.
Some people use the flowers of red berried elder as one would use other elderflowers, though I would be extra-careful to remove the stems, since Sambucus racemosa plants are reportedly higher in cyanogenic glycosides than their black-berried cousins.
In their wonderful book Wild Remedies, Rosalee de la Foret and Emily Han note that many herbalists use the flowers of Sambucus racemosa similarly to the more commonly-used nigra and canadensis elderflowers. Here’s more on the benefits and uses of elderflower if you’d like to explore some of these applications.
Only a handful of studies have looked at the medicinal potential of red berried elder, in contrast to the hundreds investigating that of Sambucus nigra.
One study evaluated red elderberry’s antioxidant compounds, while another study examined the phenolic components of several elderberry species, including red elderberry. In an experiment looking at plant extracts’ ability to inhibit HIV, red elderberry was among the most potent; another found a red elderberry plant extract inhibited the respiratory virus they tested.
RED ELDERBERRY VS. BLACK ELDERBERRY ~ RED BERRIED ELDER IDENTIFICATION
You might also consider taking a foraging class like the Herbal Academy’s online foraging course, which teaches plant identification and ethical wildcrafting practices.
Range: Red berried elder can be found in North America, Europe, and the temperate parts of Asia.
Growth habit: Sambucus racemosa plants grow as multi-stemmed shrubs, reaching 5 to 20 feet tall.
Leaves and bark: Like black elderberry, red berried elder has lance-shaped leaflets arranged in compound pinnate groups that look very similar to the leaves of Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra. Also like black elderberry, bark on the mature stems of Sambucus racemosa is rough with raised bumps called lenticels.
Flower and berry: The shape of the flower cyme and the berry clusters that form on Sambucus racemosa differ noticeably from black elderberry. You’ll know you’ve found a red berried elder if the shape of the cyme is conical rather than flat, as you can see in the photos below.
If you’re familiar with the timing of the flowers and berries of the black elderberries in your area, you’ll likely find that red elderberries bloom and fruit about a month earlier. In my area, the red elderberry flowers start appearing in May, while the black elderberries don’t usually start flowering till the end of June. Here’s what to know about identifying black elderberries.
Note that if you come across one of the ornamental elderberry varieties with bright green leaves sold by many nurseries (often a cultivar called “Lemony Lace”), you’ve likely got a Sambucus racemosa. Some people plant these types in their yard hoping for a big crop of black elderberries and are disappointed when they find they’ve got the wrong kind.
Red elderberry leaves emit an unpleasant odor when crushed. If you’re interested in making a homemade pesticide spray as they do with the leaves of Sambucus nigra in Europe, red berried elder leaves might be a good bet. The leaves of the more commonly-found Sambucus canadensis plants have no smell at all and likely won’t work as well.
–> If you’d like to learn about the benefits and uses of a far more valuable medicinal plant, I hope you’ll check out my book, Everything Elderberry. It explored the research on black elderberry’s effects on health, expert growing advice, plus 62 delicious recipes. It involved months of research, dozens of interviews, a ton of kitchen experiments and has info using on elderberries and elderflowers you won’t find anywhere else. Here’s more information plus buying options.
Do you use red elderberries or the flowers of red berried elder? Please leave a comment and share your tips!
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Photo credits: Born1945, Thayne Tuason, Susannah Shmurak, Susannah Shmurak, Hardyplants
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.