This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
3-parted. Stem: A shrub 4 to 10 ft. high, smooth, pithy, with little wood. Leaves: Opposite, pinnately compounded of 5 to 11 (usually 7) oval, pointed, and saw-edged leaflets, heavy-scented when crushed. Fruit: Reddish-black, juicy "berries " (drupes).
Preferred Habitat - Rich, moist soil; open situation.
Flowering Season - June - July.
Distribution - Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, and westward 2,000 miles.
Flowers far less beautiful than these flat-spread, misty clusters, that are borne in such profusion along the country lane and meadow hedgerows in June, are brought from the ends of the earth to adorn our over-conventional gardens. Certain European relatives, with golden or otherwise variegated foliage that looks sickly after the first resplendent outburst in spring, receive places of honor with monotonous frequency in American shrubbery borders.
Like the wild carrot among all the umbel-bearers, and the daisy among the horde of composites, the elder flower has massed its minute florets together, knowing that there was no hope of attracting insect friends, except in such union. Where clumps of elder grow - and society it ever prefers to solitude - few shrubs, looked at from above, which, of course, is the winged insect's point of view, offer a better advertisement. There are people who object to the honey-like odor of the flowers. Doubtless this is what most attracts the flies and beetles, while the lesser bees, that frequent them also, are more strongly appealed to through the eye. No nectar rewards visitors, consequently butterflies rarely stop on the flat clusters; but there is an abundant lunch of pollen for such as like it. Each minute floret has its five anthers so widely spread away from the stigmas that self-pollination is impossible; but with the help of small, winged pollen carriers plenty of cross-fertilized fruit forms. With the help of migrating birds, the minute nutlets within the "berries " are distributed far and wide.
When clusters of dark, juicy fruit make the bush top-heavy, it is, of course, no part of their plan to be gathered into pails, crushed and boiled and fermented into the spicy elderberry wine that is still as regularly made in some old-fashioned kitchens as currant jelly and pickled peaches. Both flowers and fruit have strong medicinal properties. Snuffling children are not loath to swallow sugar pills moistened with the homoeopathic tincture of Sambucus. The common European species (S. nigra), a mystic plant, was once employed to cure every ill that flesh is heir to; not only that, but, when used as a switch, it was believed to check a lad's growth. Very likely! Every whittling schoolboy knows how easv it is to remove the white pith from an elder stem. An ancient musical instrument, the sambuca, was doubtless made from many such hollow reed-like sticks properly attuned.
A more woody species than the common elder, whose stems are so green it is scarcely like a true shrub, is the very beautiful Red-berried or Mountain Elder (S. pubens), found in rocky places, especially in uplands and high altitudes, from the British Possessions north of us to Georgia on the Atlantic Coast, and to California on the Pacific. Coming into bloom in April or May, it produces numerous flower clusters which are longer than broad, pyramidal rather than flat-topped. They turn brown when drying. In young twigs the pith is reddish-brown, not white as in the common elder. Birds with increased families to feed in June are naturally attracted by the bright red fruit; and while they may not distribute the stones over so vast an area as autumn migrants do those of the fall berries, they nevertheless have enabled the shrub to travel across our continent.