Sambucus, the traditional magic tree￼
The Sambucus is a mysterious species with very ancient origins. The folkloric tradition, especially that of Northern Europe, attributed seven magical virtues to it, one for each part of the plant.
Sambucus: botanical anatomy
Sambucus includes various species, the most common being Sambucus nigra (with black-purple berries), Sambucus racemosa (red berries) and Sambucus ebulus. You should be very careful with the latter one because, although it looks a lot like the first two, it is a very poisonous variety for humans.
The species of our interest here is Sambucus nigra, also known as black elderberry or common elderberry, a plant that can take on both the shape of a tree and a shrub, belonging to the botanical family of Adoxaceae or Caprifoliaceae.
Although attributable to the hedge family, the elderberry is in effect a small tree that can reach a maximum of 10 meters in height. It has a very branched upright trunk with a twisted and irregular shape, characterized by many nodes. But the flowers are the most conspicuous and recognizable part of this plant, also thanks to their characteristic smell that announces the presence of the shrub from a considerable distance. Small, of a creamy white or ivory color, are found gathered in umbrella-shaped inflorescences that can reach up to 20 cm in diameter. Their flowering begins with the first heat of late spring and lasts for the whole month of July. As we will see shortly, they are widely used in phytotherapy, herbal medicine and to prepare various culinary delicacies.
To make this species very popular (especially among the many species of birds that eat them) are the fruits, very small shiny and juicy globose berries. At first green, then dark purple and blackish, they reach full maturity at the end of August but remain on the tree until late October.
If you spot this plant on your way, remember to pick the fruits only when they are fully ripe! When unripe they contain high concentrations of the glycoside sambunigrin, an element toxic to humans when consumed in high quantities.
Sambucus: origin and habitat
Sambucus nigra is a deciduous species, meaning that it loses its leaves every year during the autumn, and prefers the humid soils of the woods. Native to North Africa and Europe, today it is a rather cosmopolitan species and it is easy to find it also in Central or Western Asia and in North America.
In Italy you can find it from 0 to 1400 m of altitude and its preferred habitat extends from the lowland to the plateau. You may encounter it on the edges of country roads or in the hills, but also in more urbanized areas such as city parks.
Sambucus: properties and benefits
The use of elderberry in folk medicine and traditional medicine dates back to very ancient times, just think that traces of its berries have even been found in Neolithic settlements. Several historical texts report the use of flowers and fruits for the treatment of colds and as an expectorant, in case of fever, but also for the treatment of colic, sinusitis, conjunctivitis, headache, rheumatism and, last but not least, as a laxative.
At Wilden we have chosen it for the recipe of our Remedia n.2 – Boost, a blend of 9 herbs with antioxidant and immunostimulating properties, capable of strengthening the immune defenses, protecting the body from risk factors and preventing and treating cold symptoms. And when it’s too hot for a cold infusion you can try our cold herbal tea recipes or our sparkling botanical fermented drink, Frècc n. 2 – Boost Botanical Kombucha.
Sambucus: how to use it
Sambucus lends itself to countless uses. For example in herbal medicine, where all its parts are used: flowers, leaves, berries and barks are used for the preparation of decoctions, herbal teas and syrups for the treatment of numerous ailments.
Or, for more homemade recipes: elderflowers are used to prepare pancakes or flavored breads, they can be soaked to obtain elixirs or refreshing syrups; while the berries can be used for delicious jams or liqueurs. The very famous Sambuca is, in fact, an anise-based liqueur that takes its name from one special ingredient: an extract obtained from the flower of this plant.
Sambuco: fun facts
- Its name probably derives from the ancient Greek sambúkē, a term for a small wind musical instrument. The young and long twigs of the elder, in fact, are filled with a tender marrow that is very easy to empty to make a rudimentary flute.
- The healing properties of the elderberry were so appreciated in Germany and Austria that the tree was commonly called “Pharmacy of the Gods”. The peasant tradition required to bow 7 times before it, because powerful medicines could be extracted from 7 of its parts: flowers, with a purifying function; fruits used against colds; leaves, for skin packs; bark, as an intestinal rebalancing; roots, for making decoctions; resin, used as an ointment against dislocations; shoots, which helped with headaches.
- This plant, or rather, a wine flavored with its leaves is used in one of the most famous black comedies of American gold cinema “Arsenic and old lace” directed by Frank Capra. The aunts of the protagonist played by Cary Grant use it to poison their tenants with a “smile on their face”.
- Luciano, Riccardo, e Carlo Gatti, Erbe Spontanee Commestibili. Araba Fenice, 2014
- Stefano Mancuso, La nazione delle piante. Editori Laterza, 2019
- Monique Simmonds, Melanie-Jayne Howes, Jason Irving, Piante medicinali. Guido Tommasi Editore, 2020