Sambucus nigra also called Black Elderberry and European Elder, is a deciduous shrub native to Europe that belongs to the Adoxaceae family along with Guelder Rose or Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) and Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium)1,2. The Sambucus genus is widespread, with varying species being found in Africa, throughout Europe and the Americas. A unique species of elder, Sambucus palmensis, is only found in the Canary Islands 10. Most North American species of Elder are used for the same purposes as European Elder, with the exception of Red Elder, S. racemosa. While this species is not commonly used medicinally, red elderberries were an important food source for native Americans and both the flower and fruit can be used as food or medicine 3,4.
The elder plant has deep roots in tradition. In the 9th century Charlemagne was said to proclaim that the elder plant, as a panacea, be widely planted 4. In all traditions of herbal medicine, a display or offering of gratitude for the plants medicine is part of the ritual of harvesting. Native Americans make an offering to a plant before it is harvested, but in European tradition an offering for all medicinal plants was made to the Elder mother, who was thought to reside in the Elder tree. As American Ginseng holds the coveted position as being the ‘Grandfather’ of the herbs in some native American traditions, Elder is the Grandmother in European ones. Elder is associated with the underworld, and a flute made from the hollow stems of Elder is said to have a haunting sound and be called a panpipe – a reference to Pan, the Greek god of the wilds. Lastly, Elder has mythological associations with fairies, both good and bad 4.