Elderberries are distinctive in being woody shrubs with large pointed deciduous leaves which are divided into many pairs of leaflets, with one at the very end of the leaf, a strong smell, especially when damaged, and large clusters of berries at the top of the main branches. The 3 California species of Sambucus are most easily distinguished by their fruits. Blue elderberry is distinctive in having black fruits with a bluish-white coating (a bloom). The other species have either purple, black or red berries, and tend to occur in cooler and more moist areas in the mountains.
The name Sambucus alludes to a stringed musical instrument in ancient Greece made from the wood of plants in this genus. In more recent times, the Chumash of Southern California used the lightweight hollow branches for clapper sticks - partially split branches that were hit against the hand to make a loud clapping sound that kept rhythm in the absence of drums. Although many agree the fruits are not delicious on their own, they are commonly harvested to make Elderberry jam and wine. Flowers are often used to make a sweet drink as well. Note that botanists now place several of these similar looking elderberries (Sambucus caerulea, S. mexicana, and S. canadensis) into one species, black elderberry which also occurs in Europe (Sambucus nigra).