The leaves are opposite, pinnate, with 5-9 leaflets (rarely 3 or 11), each leaf 5-30 cm long, the leaflets with a serrated margin. They bear large clusters of small white or cream coloured flowers in the late spring, that are followed by clusters of small red, bluish or black (rarely yellow or white) berries. The berries are a very valuable food resource for many birds. 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 foetid smell.
The common 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 several similar species. The flowers are in flat umbels, and the berries are black to glaucous blue; they are larger shrubs, reaching 5-8 m tall, occasionally small trees up to 15 m tall and with a stem diameter of up to 30-60 cm.
Sambucus caerulea (syn. S. glauca; Blueberry Elder; western North America; with blue berries)
Sambucus canadensis (American Elder; eastern North America; with blue-black berries)
Sambucus mexicana (Mexican Elder; Mexico and Central America; with blue-black berries)
Sambucus nigra (Black Elder; Europe and western Asia; with black berries)
Sambucus simpsonii (Florida Elder; southeastern United States; with blue-black berries)
Sambucus peruviana (Andean Elder; northern South America; 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 tall. Some botanists include it in the red-berried elder group, as Sambucus racemosa subsp. melanocarpa.
The red-berried elder complex is variously treated as a single species Sambucus racemosa found throughout the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere with 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 tall.
Sambucus callicarpa (Pacific Coast Red Elder; west coast of North America)
Sambucus chinensis (Chinese Red Elder; eastern Asia, in mountains)
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 elder group comprises two species from Australasia, the only Southern Hemisphere occurrence of the genus. The flowers are in rounded panicles, and the berries white or
Sambucus australasica (Yellow Elder; New Guinea, eastern Australia)
Sambucus gaudichaudiana (Australian Elder or White Elder; shady areas of south eastern Australia)
The dwarf elders are by contrast to the other species herbaceous plants, producing new stems each year from a perennial root system; they grow to 1.5-2 m 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 )
Both flowers and berries can be made into wine, and in Hungary an elderberry brandy is produced (requiring 50 kg of fruit to produce 1 litre of brandy). The alcoholic drink sambuca is made by infusing Elderberries and anise into alcohol. The berries are best not eaten raw as they are mildly poisonous, causing vomiting (particularly if eaten unripe). The mild cyanide toxicity is destroyed by cooking. The berries can also be made into jam or pies.
In Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia, the flowers are made into a syrup or cordial (in Romanian: Socat), which is diluted with water before drinking. The popularity of this traditional drink has recently encouraged some commercial soft drink producers to introduce elderflower-flavoured drinks.
A recent study in London claims Sambucol, an Israeli-made elderberry extract, to be over 99% effective against avian influenza (H5N1) virus in vitro (see AltHealth link below).
"Elderberry Wine" is also the title of an Elton John song from the album Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player.
A famous quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is: "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"
The Brewster sisters use elderberry wine to kill off their aged boarders in the popular black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
Other useful herb information: Ephedra | Spirulina | Garcinia Cambogia | Dandelion | Wormwood | Bromelain | Psyllium
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