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Sambucus (Elder or Elderberry) is a genus of between 5 and 30 species of shrubs or small trees (two species herbaceous), formerly treated in the honeysuckle family Caprifoliaceae, but now shown by genetic evidence to be correctly classified in the moschatel family Adoxaceae. The genus is native to temperate to subtropical regions of both the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere; the genus is more widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, with Southern Hemisphere occurrence restricted to parts of Australasia and South America.
The leaves are opposite, pinnate, with 5-9 leaflets (rarely 3 or 11), each leaf 5-30 cm long, the leaflets with a serrated margin. They bear large clusters of small white or cream coloured flowers in the late spring, that are followed by clusters of small red, bluish or black (rarely yellow or white) berries. Species have lifespans between 80 and 100 years.
The berries are a very valuable food resource for many birds. Elders are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Brown-tail, Buff Ermine, Dot Moth, Emperor Moth, The Engrailed, Swallow-tailed Moth and The V-pug. The crushed foliage and immature fruit have a strong fetid smell. Dead elder wood is the preferred habitat of the mushroom Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as “Judas’ ear fungus”.
Valley elderberry longhorn beetle in California are very often found around red or blue elderberry bushes. Females lay their eggs on the bark. Larvae hatch and burrow into the stems.
Both flowers and berries can be made into elderberry wine, and in Hungary an elderberry brandy is produced (requiring 50 kg of fruit to produce 1 litre of brandy). The alcoholic drink sambuca is made by infusing elderberries and anise into alcohol. The berries are best not eaten raw as they are mildly poisonous, causing vomiting, particularly if eaten unripe. The mild cyanide toxicity is destroyed by cooking. The berries can also be made into jam, pies or Pontack sauce. All green parts of the plant are poisonous, containing cyanogenic glycosides (Vedel & Lange 1960).
The flowers may be used to make an herbal tea, which is believed as a remedy for colds and fever. In Europe, the flowers are made into a syrup or cordial (in Romanian: Socată), which is diluted with water before drinking. The popularity of this traditional drink has recently encouraged some commercial soft drink producers to introduce elderflower-flavoured drinks (Fanta Shokata). The flowers can also be used to make a mildly alcoholic, sparkling elderflower ‘champagne’.