|Shrub in flower|
Sambucus nigra is a species complex of flowering plants in the family Adoxaceae native to most of Europe and North America. Common names include elder, elderberry, black elder, European elder, European elderberry, and European black elderberry. It grows in a variety of conditions including both wet and dry fertile soils, primarily in sunny locations. The plant is a very common feature of hedgerows and scrubland in Britain and northern Europe, but is also widely grown as an ornamental shrub or small tree. Both the flowers and the berries have a long tradition of culinary use, primarily for cordial and wine. The Latin specific epithet nigra means "black", and refers to the deeply dark colour of the berries.
Elderberry is a deciduous shrub or small tree growing to 6 m (20 ft) tall and wide, rarely reaching 10 m (33 ft) tall. The bark, light grey when young, changes to a coarse grey outer bark with lengthwise furrowing, lenticels prominent. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, 10–30 cm long, pinnate with five to seven (rarely nine) leaflets, the leaflets 5–12 cm long and 3–5 cm broad, with a serrated margin. The young stems are hollow. The English term for the tree is not believed to come from the word "old", but from the Anglo Saxon æld, meaning fire, because the hollow stems of the branches were used as bellows to blow air into a fire.
The hermaphroditic flowers have five stamens, which are borne in large, flat corymbs 10–25 cm diameter in late spring to mid-summer, the individual flowers are ivory white, 5–6 mm diameter, with five petals; they are pollinated by flies.
There are several other closely related species, native to Asia and North America, which are similar, and sometimes treated as subspecies of Sambucus nigra. The blue or Mexican elderberry, Sambucus mexicana, is now generally treated as one or two subspecies of Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis and Sambucus nigra subsp. caerulea.
Some selections and cultivars have variegated or coloured leaves and other distinctive qualities, and are grown as ornamental plants. Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla has dark maroon or black leaves, and pale pink flowers.
- S. nigra f. laciniata (cut-leaved alder)
- S. nigra f. porphyrophylla 'Eva'
- S. nigra f. porphyrophylla 'Gerda'
The dark blue or purple berries are mildly poisonous in their raw state. Unripe berries, the seeds of the fruit, and all green parts of the plant are poisonous, containing cyanogenic glycosides (Vedel & Lange 1960). The berries are edible after cooking and may be used to make jam, jelly, chutney, and Pontack sauce. In Scandinavia and Germany, soup made from the elderberry (e.g. the German Fliederbeersuppe) is a traditional meal.
Commonly, the flowerheads are used in infusions, giving a drink in Northern Europe and the Balkans. These drinks are sold commercially as elderflower cordial. In Europe, the flowers are made into a syrup or cordial (in Romanian: Socată, in Swedish: fläder(blom)saft, in Danish: hyldeblomstsaft / hyldedrik), which is diluted with water before drinking. The popularity of this traditional drink recently has encouraged some commercial soft drink producers to introduce elderflower-flavoured drinks (Fanta Shokata, Freaky Fläder). The flowers also may be dipped into a light batter and then fried to make elderflower fritters.
The berries may be made into elderberry wine. In Hungary, an elderberry brandy is made that requires 50 kg of fruit to produce 1 litre of brandy. In south-western Sweden, it is traditional to make a snaps liqueur flavoured with elderflower. Elderflowers are used in liqueurs such as St-Germain, and in a mildly alcoholic sparkling elderflower 'champagne', although a more alcoholic home-made version can be made. In Beerse, Belgium, a variety of jenever called beers vlierke is made from the berries.
This plant is used in traditional medicine by native peoples and herbalists. Extracts of the flowers and fruits are used for cold and flu symptoms, although there is no high-quality clinical evidence that it is effective for treating any disease.
Potential for poisoning
Consumption of raw elderberries, leaves, bark, and stems, if not properly prepared, may cause nausea, vomiting, and severe diarrhea through the toxic effects of cyanogenic glycosides. Elderberry plant constituents or products should not be consumed during pregnancy or by people with allergies or gastrointestinal diseases. Elderberry products may cause adverse effects when used with prescription drugs.
Elder rates as fair to good forage for animals such as mule deer, elk, sheep, and small birds. It is classified as nesting habitat for many birds, including hummingbirds, warblers, and vireos. Ripe elderberries are a favorite food for migrating band-tailed pigeons in northern California, which may sometimes strip an entire bush in a short time. It is also a larval host to the spring azure. It is good habitat for large and small mammals.
Poisonous to mammals
Except for the flowers and ripe berries (but including the ripe seeds), all parts of the plant are poisonous to mammals, containing the cyanogenic glycoside sambunigrin (C14H17NO6, CAS number 99-19-4). The bark contains calcium oxalate crystals.
The strong-smelling foliage was used in the past, tied to a horse's mane, to keep flies away while riding.
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