American elder closely resembles the European species, common elder (S. nigra), and is sometimes considered its subspecies. It is a fast-growing, luxuriant, multi-stemmed shrub producing root suckers, unlike the common elder. Leaves are large, with 5-9 leaflets, giving the shrub an exotic look. American elder flowers in August, after the common elder, with white, scented corymbs. The blue-black berries seldom have time to ripen in Finland. There is conflicting information about their edibility.
Although red elderberry is fairly common in Finland as far north as Oulu, it is not a native species but was imported from central Europe hundreds of years ago. During the last hundred years it has escaped from gardens and become a normal feature of the landscape.
Dwarf elder differs from the more familiar red elderberry (S. racemosa) in being a perennial, not a woody species. The stems, which don’t branch, can grow to two metres in a single summer. It produces 10-15 cm wide corymbs of white flowers at the tips of the stems in late summer, and these later develop into black berries. It is not the best species for small gardens because it spreads aggressively.