GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Mexican Elderberry: A Berry Good Plant

Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)

By Pat Pawlowski.

Sorry. You know I mean that Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) is a VERY good plant. How good? Let me count the ways.

First, it is good for people. Trimmed up, it makes a nice small tree, adding shade and value to your yard. It grows quickly, is fairly drought tolerant, and livens up the landscape. Although it is partly deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves in colder months, it illuminates the garden scene with its bright green leaves most of the year. The creamy clouds of flowers appear in spring. The subtle scent of the flowers makes me think of summer days—not the overly hot ones, though.

The small, glossy blue berries can be used to make jam, pie, and an enticing drink. If you are like me, you are thinking wine. Yes, you can make wine; but you can also, like Native Americans, make a soothing tea. In the morning, after your liquid refreshment, you can take some of the berries and throw them on your cereal. They have a nice tart taste. I would stay away from eating the branches if I were you, though, since they are said to be poisonous. (However, if you push out the pith in the wood, you could make a fairly respectable flute.)

Another people-pleasing attribute: Mexican elderberry is easy to grow. It accepts full sun or partial shade, and can grow in various kinds of soils. It won't throw a fit if you decide to plant it near a watered location, since this adaptable, drought-tolerant tree can be found in nature in riparian areas. And it blooms from April to August.

Now, who else is elderberry good for? Well, it is good for birds—many kinds, such as flycatchers, sparrows, grosbeaks, thrashers, nuthatches, orioles, tanagers, warblers—and loads of other species, too. The berries are especially liked by phainopeplas (say what?), the most northerly of the silky flycatchers. Hummingbirds like to sit on the tree's smallest branches, taking a break from the daily grind, which consists of chasing other hummers away from their favorite flowering plants.

Mexican elderberry is also good for beneficial insects, and we all appreciate our bennies, especially if we are trying to avoid using tons of pesticides in the yard. The flowers are always buzzing with lots of insect traffic, and we know how important it is to provide nectar and pollen for our native bees, and of course honeybees too. Don't forget our favorite bennies: butterflies sometimes hang out on the flowers.

And now we come back again to people, especially lovers of all the kinds of wildlife mentioned above. A tree to sit under, a beverage to slurp, a symphony of birdsong, a bounty of beneficials—all because of Mexican elderberry. A berry good plant, indeed.

Member Pat Pawlowski is a writer/lecturer/garden consultant who is sweet on berries.