The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) grows up to 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Commonly grown as a shrub, it can also be pruned into a small tree. In the early summer months the shrub produces large sprays of tiny white flowers up to 10 inches in long and wide.
Each spring the foliage of the elderberry begins to appear. The leaf form is pinnate with the leaves hanging opposite each other. Each pinnate can measure up to 12 inches in length and sport 9 leaflets each 6 inches long. The shrub is deciduous in areas with colder winters. In warmer areas, such as Florida, the shrub retains its leaves year-round. In areas where the elderberry looses its leaves in preparation for winter, the shrub sports a colorful fall display in shades of yellow, orange and red prior to dropping its leaves.
In USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 10 to 11, the elderberry not only retains its leaves throughout the year but also produces abundant flowers and berries non-stop. The flowers are often used in pancake batter to create a flavored fritter, according to the North Carolina State University. They are also used to make perfumes and in the production of a white wine.
Following flowering, the elderberry bush produces clusters of tiny black berries. The berries contain toxic substances known as cyanogenic glycoside and alkaloid, both of which can cause vomiting and diarrhea if consumed raw. When the berries are cooked for jellies or juice, they are rendered non-toxic. Each berry contains up to five seeds.
The elderberry shrub grows quickly from seed but also spreads rapidly by sucker growth from its roots. The aggressive sucker growth causes large thickets of elderberries to form in areas where the shrub has escaped cultivation.
The elderberry tolerates a range of soil conditions. It can withstand periods of drought. The shrub also naturalizes quickly in wetland areas. It does not mind water-logged roots. Elderberry shrubs grow well in full sunlight and partial shade. Gardeners often cut the shrub completely to the ground when it begins to appear leggy. Once pruned to the ground, the elderberry will return in a thicker, more bushy form.