Sambucus nigra



Sambucus nigra

L. 1753

pronounced: sam-BYOO-kuss NY-gruh

(Adoxaceae — the moschatel family)


common name: elderberry

Sambucus is named for the sambuca, an ancient stringed instrument made from the elder wood; nigra is from the Latin niger, black. This genus was formerly in the Caprifoliaceae family, but has recently been transferred into Adoxiaceae.

Elderberry is a well-shaped deciduous shrub or small tree up to about 6 m tall by 3 m wide, with glossy deep green imparipinnate leaves, the leaflets lanceolate with serrate margins, and sprays of fragrant tiny white flowers. These are followed by clusters of purple to black berries. The tree is native to Europe, Asia, North Africa and the eastern United States. Although usually reckoned to be a plant of the temperate zone, it can be grown in most sub-tropical areas, and there is a specimen growing on Magnetic Island, in a garden in Hurst Street, Picnic Bay.

This is probably one of the most useful plants of all, and has been so for centuries. From its berries, flowers and leaves to its branches and trunk, the elderberry bush provides food, drink, medicine, dye, and musical instruments.

Food is provided by the berries, eaten when fresh, or made into jams, jellies, chutneys, fruit tarts, ice cream and fritters, and they may also be frozen or dried for future use.

The drink that first comes to mind from this plant is Elderberry Wine, but a tea is also made from the dried flowers. In some countries elderberry tea-bags are available in the shops.

dangerous 2Medicines are made from various combinations of the leaves, flowers, berries and bark. The stems are avoided, as they contain cyanide. Other caveats include avoiding elderberry products during pregnancy, and always using them in moderate quantities – eating too many uncooked berries can cause nausea and vomiting, and the juice of the berries taken in large quantities can cause severe diarrhoea. Preparations of elderberry are taken internally for asthma, bronchitis, colds, influenza, upper respiratory tract infections, fevers, sinusitis, allergies, congestion, throat infections and constipation. Others are applied externally for bruises, sprains, wounds, inflamed skin, arthritis and rheumatism.

A black dye is made from the berries and stems, and mainly used in basket-making.

As well as its ancient use for making both a harp-like instrument and a woodwind instrument, the elder was used extensively by various tribes of North American Indians for making flutes, whistles and pipes for blowing air into a fire: the pith of young branches pushes out easily, leaving the hollow stem. They also used the wood for making bull-roarers and the split-stick clapper used to accompany the rattle during dances. The wood is white and fine-textured. It is easily cut and polishes well. It is used for making wooden spoons, skewers, mathematical instruments and toys.

Finally, here is a recipe for a herbal bath – I have not tried it, so there are no guarantees, but it sounds good!

For a relaxing evening bath, infuse 5 fresh elderflower heads or 3 elderflower tea-bags in 1¼-2 cups of whole milk for a few hours, and then add the milk to a drawn bath. The flower heads look beautiful floating in the water. Elderflower tea-bags are also good for refreshing tired eyes.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2011
Page last updated 29th March 2019