This plant is classified by several different botanical names besides Sambucus cerulea. Both the current USDA database and The Jepson Manual of California flora (2013) classify the plant as Sambucus nigra subsp. cerulea.
Sambucus cerulea is native to the Western United States, northwestern Mexico, and British Columbia. It is found from the Pacific coasts, through California and the Great Basin, to Montana, Wyoming, Texas and Oklahoma.
This species grows at elevations below 3,000 metres (9,800 ft), in diverse habitats of mountains and hills, valleys, riparian zones, open places in woodlands and forests, and exposed slopes where moisture is reachable.
Sambucus cerulea is a large, deciduous shrub, which can grow to be 9 metres (30 ft) in height and 6 metres (20 ft) in width. It is distinguishable from other elderberries by the glaucous powder coating on its bluish-black berries. It normally grows rather wildly from several stems, which can be heavily pruned (or even cut to the ground) during winter dormancy.
The leaves are hairless, strongly pointed and sharp-toothed. They are elliptical to lanceolate, and the blade extends unequally on the stalk at the base. The leaves are commonly 3–15 cm (1–6 in) long and 2–6 cm (1–2.5 in) wide.
The white or creamy coloured flowers, occurring May to June, are numerous and form a flat-topped cluster usually about 5–20 cm (2–8 in) wide. They are umbel-shaped, normally with 4 to 5 rays extending from the base. The flowers have a strong, unpleasant odor. Individual flowers are 4–7 mm wide.
The fruits given are berry-like drupes. They are juicy, round, and approximately 4–6 mm in diameter. They are bluish-black appearing as a pale powdery blue colour. Each fruit contains 3 to 5 small seed-like stones, each enclosing a single seed.
The indigenous peoples of North America, with the plant in their homelands, use the leaves, blossoms, bark, roots, and wood for preparing traditional medicinal remedies, taken internally or applied externally. The fresh, dried, and cooked berries are used for food.
Some tribes used the wood to make musical instruments, such as flutes, clappers, and small whistles;[a] and smoking implements. Soft wood was used as a spindle "twirling stick" to make fire by friction. The bark was used to produce a remedy for fever. Stems and berries were used as a dye for basket weaving materials.
Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea is cultivated as an ornamental plant by plant nurseries, for planting in traditional, native plant, and habitat gardens. It is also used for natural landscaping and habitat restoration projects. It can become a multi-trunk tree when trained from youth with only several dominant trunks.