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Sambucus (elder or elderberry) is a genus of between 5 and 30 species of shrubs or small trees in the moschatel family, Adoxaceae. It was formerly placed in the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, but was reclassified due to genetic evidence. Two of its species are herbaceous.

The genus is native in temperate-to-subtropical regions of both the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. It is more widespread in the Northern Hemisphere; its Southern Hemisphere occurrence is restricted to parts of Australasia and South America.

The leaves are pinnate with 5–9 leaflets (rarely 3 or 11). Each leaf is 5–30 cm (2.0–12 in) long, and the leaflets have serrated margins. They bear large clusters of small white or cream-colored flowers in late spring; these are followed by clusters of small black, blue-black, or red berries (rarely yellow or white).

Species groups

  • The black-berried elder complex is variously treated as a single species Sambucus nigra found in the warmer parts of Europe and North America with several regional varieties or subspecies, or else as a group of severalsimilar species. The flowers are in flat corymbs, and the berries are black to glaucous blue; they are larger shrubs, reaching 3–8 m (9.8–26 ft) tall, occasionally small trees up to 15 m (49 ft) tall and with a stem diameter of up to 30–60 cm (12–24 in).
    • Sambucus australis (Southern Elder; temperate eastern South America)
    • Sambucus canadensis (syn. S. nigra ssp canadensis; American Elder; eastern North America; with blue-black berries)
    • Sambucus cerulea (syn. S. caerulea, S. glauca; Blue Elderberry; western North America; dark blue-black berries with glaucous bloom on surface, giving them a sky-blue appearance)
    • Sambucus javanica (Chinese Elder; southeastern Asia)
    • Sambucus nigra (Elder or Black Elder; Europe and western Asia; with black berries) This is the species most often used medicinally.
    • Sambucus lanceolata (Madeira Elder; Madeira Island; with black berries)
    • Sambucus mexicana (Mexican Elder; Sonoran Desert; with black berries)
    • Sambucus palmensis (Canary Islands Elder; Canary Islands; with black berries)
    • Sambucus peruviana (Peruvian Elder; northwest South America; with black berries)
    • Sambucus simpsonii (Florida Elder; southeastern United States; with blue-black berries)
    • Sambucus velutina (Velvet Elder; southwestern North America; with blue-black berries)
  • The Blackberry Elder Sambucus melanocarpa of western North America is intermediate between the preceding and next groups. The flowers are in rounded panicles, but the berries are black; it is a small shrub, rarely exceeding 3–4 m (9.8–13 ft) tall. Some botanists include it in the red-berried elder group.
  • The red-berried elder complex is variously treated as a single species Sambucus racemosafound throughout the colder parts of the Northern Hemispherewith several regional varieties or subspecies, or else as a group of several similar species. The flowers are in rounded panicles, and the berries are bright red; they are smaller shrubs, rarely exceeding 3–4 m (9.8–13 ft) tall.
    • Sambucus callicarpa (Pacific Coast Red Elderberry; west coast of North America)
    • Sambucus chinensis (Chinese Red Elder; eastern Asia, in mountains)
    • Sambucus latipinna (Korean Red Elder; Korea, southeast Siberia)
    • Sambucus microbotrys (Mountain Red Elder; southwest North America, in mountains)
    • Sambucus pubens (American Red Elder; northern North America)
    • Sambucus racemosa (European Red Elder or Red-berried Elder; northern Europe, northwest Asia)
    • Sambucus sieboldiana (Japanese Red Elder; Japan and Korea)
    • Sambucus tigranii (Caucasus Red Elder; southwest Asia, in mountains)
    • Sambucus williamsii (North China Red Elder; northeast Asia)
  • The Australian eldergroup comprises two species from Australasia. The flowers are in rounded panicles, and the berries white or yellow; they are shrubs growing to 3 m (9.8 ft) high.
    • Sambucus australasica (Yellow Elder; New Guinea, eastern Australia)
    • Sambucus gaudichaudiana (Australian Elder or White Elder; shady areas of south eastern Australia)
  • The dwarf eldersare, by contrast to the other species, herbaceousplants, producing new stems each year from a perennial root system; they grow to 1.5–2 m (4.9–6.6 ft) tall, each stem terminating in a large flat umbel which matures into a dense cluster of glossy berries.
    • Sambucus adnata (Asian Dwarf Elder; Himalaya and eastern Asia; berries red)
    • Sambucus ebulus (European Dwarf Elder; central and southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia; berries black)

Other species:

  • Sambucus melanocarpa Gray (western elder)[2]
  • Sambucus neomexicana Wooton (New Mexico elder)[2]
  • Sambucus mexicana Presl. (Mexican elderberry; western Texas to southern California and adjacent Mexico (tapiro in Spanish))[2]
  • Sambucus velutina Dur. & Hilg. (velvet elder; mountains of western Arizona)[2]
  • Sambucus coerula Raf.(western elder; British Columbia to Arizona and California)[2]




The flowers of Sambucus nigra are used to produce elderflower cordial. The French, Austrians and Central Europeans produce elderflower syrup, commonly made from an extract of elderflower blossoms, which is added to pancake (Palatschinken) mixes instead of blueberries. People throughout much of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe use a similar method to make a syrup which is diluted with water and used as a drink. Based on this syrup, Fanta markets a soft drink variety called “Shokata”[3] which is sold in 15 countries worldwide. In the United States, this French elderflower syrup is used to make elderflower marshmallows.[citation needed] St. Germain, a French liqueur, is made from elderflowers. Hallands Fläder, a Swedish akvavit, is flavoured with elderflowers.

The Italian liqueur Sambuca is flavoured with oil obtained from the elderflower.

In Germany, yoghurt desserts are made based both on the berries[4] as well as on the flowers[5].

Wines, cordials and marmalade have been produced from the berries or flowers. Fruit pies and relishes are produced with berries. In Italy (especially in Piedmont) and Germany, the umbels of the elderberry are batter coated, fried and then served as a dessert or a sweet lunch with a sugar and cinnamon topping.

Hollowed elderberry twigs have traditionally been used as spiles to tap maple trees for syrup.[6]

In Romania, a slightly fermented soft beverage (called “socata” or “suc de soc”) is traditionally produced by letting the flowers macerate, with water, yeast and lemon for 2-3 days.


Ornamental varieties of Sambucus are grown in gardens for their showy flowers, fruits and lacy foliage.

Native species of elderberry are often planted by people wishing to support native butterfly and bird species.


Black elderberry has been used medicinally for hundreds of years.[7][8] Some preliminary studies demonstrate that elderberry may have a measurable effect in treating the flu, alleviating allergies, and boosting overall respiratory health.[9][10] It was discovered in 2010 that ingredients in S. Nigra juice prevent viruses from infecting mucous membranes. Using this datum, Dr. Linus Hollis (ScD) gathered 150 volunteers to develop a Viral Prevention Protocol that would not increase allergic sensitivity. The use of the juice as a gargle twice daily along with sinus rinsing proved effective. For the number of volunteers who found sinus rinsing unpleasant, eyedrops were developed. The concentrations are 1ml/l of juice to e either saline or eyewash. A single ml of juice is enough to gargle. Weekly monitoring of IgE showed little to no increase for all the volunteers. Having been shown to be safe and effective, the volunteers “expanded the


Branches from the Elder are also used to make the Fujara, Koncovka and other uniquely Slovakian flutes. [1] Similar musical instruments (furulya) are made of elderberry (fekete bodza Sambucus nigra) in Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe.


The leaves, twigs, branches, seeds and roots contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside (a glycoside which gives rise to cyanide as the metabolism processes it). Ingesting any of these parts in sufficient quantity can cause a toxic build up of cyanide in the body.

Due to the possibility of cyanide poisoning, children should be discouraged from making whistles, slingshots or other toys from elderberry wood. In addition, “herbal teas” made with elderberry leaves (which contain cyanogenic glycosides) should be treated with high caution. However, ripe berries (pulp and skin) are safe to eat.[11]


The berries are a very valuable food resource for many birds. In Northern California elderberries are a favorite food for migrating Band-Tailed Pigeons. Flocks can strip an entire bush in less than an hour. Elders are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Brown-tail, Buff Ermine, Dot Moth, Emperor Moth, the Engrailed, Swallow-tailed Moth and the V-pug. The crushed foliage and immature fruit have a strong fetid smell.

Valley elderberry longhorn beetle in California are very often found around red or blue elderberry bushes. Females lay their eggs on the bark. Larvae hatch and burrow into the stems.

Dead elder wood is the preferred habitat of the mushroom Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as “Judas’ ear fungus”.[12]

The pith of elder has been used by watchmakers for cleaning tools before intricate work.[13]


Folklore is extensive and can be wildly conflicting depending on region.

  • In some areas, the “elder tree” was supposed to ward off evil influence and give protection from witches, while other beliefs say that witches often congregate under the plant, especially when it is full of fruit.
  • In some regions, superstition, religious belief, or tradition prohibits the cutting of certain trees for bonfires, most notably in witchcraft customs the elderberry tree; “Elder be ye Lady’s tree, burn it not or cursed ye’ll be” – A rhyme from the Wiccan rede.
  • If an elder tree was cut down, a spirit known as the Elder Mother would be released and take her revenge. The tree could only safely be cut while chanting a rhyme to the Elder Mother.[14]

In popular culture

  • In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the keeper of the French castle taunts King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by telling them that “[their] Father smelt of elderberries.”
  • The most powerful wand in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a wand made of sambucus known as the “Elder Wand”.[15]
  • Elton John released a song in 1973 called Elderberry Wine. (Lyrics: Bernie Taupin; music Elton John)
  • The Rolling Stones released a song in 1974 called “Till the Next Goodbye” on the “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” album which features the line, “You give me a cure-all from New Orleans/Now that’s a recipe I sure do need./Some cider vinegar and some elderberry wine/could cure all your ills but it can’t kill mine.”
  • The plot of the stage play and film Arsenic and Old Lace revolves around a pair of spinsters who murder men by serving them elderberry wine adulterated with cyanide, arsenic, and strychnine.
  • Elderberries is a comic strip about a home for the elderly, drawn by Phil Frank [16]
Written on August 28th, 2012 , Fruits Tags:

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