Sambucus nigra
Moschatel family (Adoxaceae)

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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. Elder is cited as a poisonous plant for mammals, and as a weed in certain habitats.

The plant is a very common feature of hedgerows and scrubland in Britain and northern Europe, but also is 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. 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.


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 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.

The fruit is a glossy, dark purple to black berry 3–5 mm diameter, produced in drooping clusters in late autumn; they are an important food for many fruit-eating birds, notably blackcaps. In subtropical areas of North America, fruit may be borne in July as well.


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.


Hedges, waste-ground roadsides, and woods are the typical habitats for the species.S. nigra is recorded as very common in Ireland in hedges as scrub in woods.


Some selections and cultivars have variegated or coloured leaves and other distinctive qualities, and are grown as ornamental plants.

The following cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit:

  • S. nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Eva’
  • S. nigra f. laciniata
  • S. nigra f. porphyrophylla 'Gerda' (syn. 'Black Beauty')

Culinary uses

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.

Both flowers and 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.

Traditional medicine

This plant is used as a medicinal plant by native peoples and herbalists. Extracts of the flowers and fruits are used in bronchitis, cough, upper respiratory cold infections, and fever, and have recently been shown to reduce the incidence of cold, as well as shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms. Topical extracts of the leaves and bark are also used.

Sambucus nigra fruits and flowers have been used in traditional Austrian medicine – internally (fruits as tea, jelly, juice, or syrup; flowers as tea or syrup) for treatment of disorders of the respiratory tract, mouth, gastrointestinal tract, and skin, and for viral infections, fever, colds, and influenza. The first book about the medicinal properties of the plant was written by German physician Martin Blochwich in the 1620s.

The dried corollas and stamens of Sambucus nigra L. (Sambucus, British Pharmaceutical Codex, 1949) have been used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions, while the fruits are used to promote urination.


Like other elderberries, Sambucus nigra is subject to elder whitewash fungus and jelly ear fungus.

Wildlife value

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 cover for large and small mammals as well.

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.

Other uses

The strong-smelling foliage was used in the past, tied to a horse's mane, to keep flies away while riding.


Further reading

  • Blanchan, Neltje (1900). Wild Flowers: An Aid to Knowledge of our Wild Flowers and their Insect Visitors. New York City: Doubleday. OCLC 16950204.
  • Rushforth, K. (1999). Trees of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins ISBN 0-00-220013-9.
  • Bratu, Mihaela Mirela; Doroftei, Elena; Negreanu-Pirjol, Ticuta; Hostina, Corina; Porta, Sepp (April 2012). "Determination of Antioxidant Activity and Toxicity of Sambucus nigra Fruit Extract Using Alternative Methods". Food Technology and Biotechnology. 50 (2): 177–182. ISSN 1330-9862.

External links

Media related to Sambucus nigra at Wikimedia Commons



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