Elderberry - Sambucus nigra can be poisonous
Elderberry - Sambucus nigra, click for a larger image
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Elderberry - Sambucus nigra, click for a larger image

Elderberry - Sambucus nigra
Family - Caprifoliaceae
Also known as - Elder, Black Elder, Common Elder

This plant can be poisonous.

Elderberry 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 between 4-6M (13-19ft) tall.  The bark, light grey when young, changes to a coarse grey outer bark with lengthwise furrowing.  The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, 10-30cm (4-12in) long, pinnate with five to seven leaflets, the leaflets 5-12cm (2-5in) long and 3-5cm (1.2-2in) broad, with a serrated margin.  Hermaphroditic flowers are borne in large flat-topped masses of creamy-white or corymbs 10-25cm (4-10in) diameter with individual white flowers 5-6mm (0.25in) diameter, with five petals, they are pollinated by flies.  The fruit is a dark blue/purple berry 3-5mm (0.2in) in diameter in drooping clusters in the late autumn and are an important food for many fruit-eating birds.

There are several other closely related species, native to Asia and North America, which are similar, and sometimes treated as a subspecies of Sambucus nigra.  The blue or Mexican Elderberry - S. mexicana is now generally treated as one or two subspecies of S. nigra ssp. canadensis and ssp. caerulea. Some selections and cultivars have variegated or coloured leaves and other distinctive qualities, and are grown as ornamental plants.  Elderberries are subject to the Elder Whitewash fungus Hyphodontia sambuci.

FBCP do not advise or recommend that Elderberry - Sambucus nigra is eaten or used as an herbal remedy.   The dark blue/purple berries can be eaten when fully ripe but are mildly poisonous in their unripe state, however all green parts of the plant are poisonous, containing a cyanogenic glycosides - sambunigrin.  Elder is cited as a poisonous plant to mammals and as a weed in certain habitats.  The berries are edible after cooking and can be used to make jams, jellies, chutneys, sauces and pies they go well with blackberries (Bramble) and apples in pies.

The flower heads are used for infusions, and commercially these are sold as Elderflower cordial, etc.  The flowers can also be dipped into a batter and fried to make Elderflower fritters.  Both flowers and berries can be made into Elderberry wine, and in Hungary an elderberry brandy is produced.  The stem bark, leaves, flowers, fruits, root extracts have been used as traditional medicines used to treat bronchitis, cough, upper respiratory cold infections, fever.  Allegedly the strong-smelling foliage has been used when tied to a horse's mane, to keep flies away while riding.  The pithy stem can be used to make a whistle, hence it was often called Pipe-Tree, or Bore-tree and Bour-tree, the latter name remaining in Scotland and being traceable to the Anglo-Saxon form, Burtre.

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