Elder – Sambucus nigra

Sambucus nigra is a species complex of flowering plants in the family Adoxaceae native to most of Europe. 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.

It is a deciduous shrub or small tree growing to 6 m (20 ft) tall and wide (rarely 10m tall). The bark, light grey when young, changes to a coarse grey outer bark with lengthwise furrowing. 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 hermaphrodite flowers are borne in large, flat corymbs 10–25 cm diameter in late spring to mid summer, the individual flowers 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.

Sambucus 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 several similar species. The flowers are in flat corymbs, and the berries are black to glaucous blue; they are larger shrubs, reaching 3–8 m (9.8–26.2 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 or maquiberry; South America)
    • Sambucus canadensis (syn. S. nigra ssp canadensis; American elder; eastern North America; with blue-black berries)
    • Sambucus cerulea (syn. S. caerulea, S. coerula, S. glauca; blue elderberry, nō-kōm-hē-i’-nē, Konkow language); 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 (9.8–13.1 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 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 (9.8–13.1 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, central North America)
    • Sambucus sieboldiana (Japanese red elder; Japan and Korea)
    • Sambucus tigranii (Caucasus red elder; southwest Asia, in mountains)
    • Sambucus williamsii (North China red elder, “jie gu mu,” 接骨木; northeast Asia)
  • The Australian elder group 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 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 (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)
  • Sambucus neomexicana Wooton (New Mexico elder)
  • Sambucus velutina Dur. & Hilg. (velvet elder; mountains of western Arizona)