Time to celebrate Sambucus or elderberry … Herb of the Year for 2013! A well-deserved spotlight on a wonderfully versatile plant.
Somewhat renowned for its healing powers hidden within its flowers, berries and even in its bark, this genus is definitely worth getting to know better.
First off, there are close to 30 different species in the Sambucus family and they can be found throughout the temperate, bordering on subtropical, regions of the northern and southern hemispheres. Admittedly, the species are a little more prolific in the northern part of the globe. Growing regions in the southern half of our planet are limited to Australia and South America.
The different species have been divided into groups … mostly defined by whether they have red- or black-coloured berries. Some are separated by growing region as in Sambucus gaudichaudiana … Australian elder or white elder.
The red-berried elder group is comprised of nine species: Sambucus callicarpa or Pacific Coast red elderberry (native to the west coast of North America), S. chinensis, S. latipinna, S. microbotrys, S. pubens, S. racemosa, S. sieboldiana, S. tigranii and S. williamsii.
However, you will find some references have generalized and lumped all nine into a single species, Sambucus racemosa. This can be a little confusing for gardeners trying to learn more about their particular elderberry.
These nine species of red-berried elderberries are native throughout the northern hemisphere in its colder regions.
Perhaps of particular note … Sambucus callicarpa or Pacific Coast red elderberry is native to the west coast of North America. Sambucus pubens (American red elder) is native to the northern regions of North American and S. microbotrys (mountain red elder) is found in the mountainous regions of the American southwest.
The red-berried elders fall into the multi-stemmed shrub category, ranging in height from ten to thirteen feet (3-4m). Panicles of spring to early summer flowers produce their red berries in late summer.
Turning to the black-berried elder group … there are eleven species listed here. Sambucus australis, S. canadensis (synonymous as S. nigra ssp. canadensis), S. caerulea, S. javanica, S. lanceolata, S. mexicana, S. nigra, S. palmensis, S. peruviana, S. simpsonii and S. velutina. Again, confusion can reign supreme as many references lump all eleven under one species – Sambucus nigra.
Most of these eleven black-berried species are found in warmer regions of North America and Europe. The exceptions are: Sambucus australis, native to the temperate regions of eastern South American; S. mexicana, found in the Sonora Desert and S. peruviana or Peruvian elder, found in northwest South America.
Height is variable in this group. Most are shrubs ranging from ten to 25 feet (3-8m) but some attain tree stature of up to 50 feet (15m). Flowers are borne on flat-topped corymbs, producing berries in late summer ranging in colour from grey-blue to pitch black.
Outside of the black-berried group but bearing black-coloured berries is the blackberry elderberry … Sambucus melanocarpa. This species is native to western North American … more specifically, the Pacific west coast. Flowers carried in lovely rounded panicles is one of the differentiating features between this shrub-like species and its black-berried cousins. The other is its shorted height … rarely topping higher than 13 feet (4m).
Of greatest medicinal value is Sambucus nigra, also known as elder or black elder. (Medically speaking, one senses the valid reasoning for listing all 11 species in this black-berried group separately.)
Black elder, native to western Asia and Europe, has been used medicinally for centuries … dating as far back as Roman times or earlier. Traditional Chinese medicines use the berries as an ingredient for treating all forms of rheumatism.
More recently, Western medicine studies are showing excellent results from using black elder to treat influenza symptoms, allergies and respiratory problems.
The flowers have been found to be beneficial as an overall perk-you-up tonic to combat the winter blahs. Hmm … northern hemisphere, lots of snow, healthful tonic … just what I need to get me through this winter!
Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek. Her website is at www.duchessofdirt.ca and her column appears every second Friday in the Record.