The Witch Elderbush

I’m not sure why I like elderberries. I like the shrub and its flowers and the appearance of the berries, but not particularly the taste of the berries, which are also kind of seedy. They seem to be flowering a little early this year. I have been seeing them along the roads for a week and tomorrow is the first of July, their usual month of flowering.

Elderberry flowers

The flowers of Sambucus Canadensis (in the older convention of  Latin names for plants, if the trivial name is a proper name, the capital is retained, but for the names of animals it is not; this is not always observed and may be arcane), the common elderberry of the eastern United States are flat, white, corymbs.

The geometry of inflorescences is one of those things that some people can keep track of and some people can’t. I am in the latter camp. I am forever forgetting the difference between a corymb and an umbel. Both form flat flower heads, but the umbel sends up unbranched pedicels to the flowers. In a corymb the pedicels are branched.

The genus Sambucus in North America is divided into black-berried species and red-berried species. The black-berried taxa tend to live in warmer climates and flower in corymbs, while the red-berried taxa are found in colder climates and carry their flowers in panicles.

Both panicles and corymbs are indeterminate inflorescences, which is to say that there is no terminal flower. In a corymb the more basal pedicels grow longer than the more distal ones, so they all end up shooting out flowers on more or less the same plane. Not so the panicle, which takes a more cylindrical or globular form.

S. Canadensis is thought by some systematists to be conspecific with S. nigra, the common European elderberry. Both of them are widely used by folkloric herbalists for a variety of purposes, but all parts of the plants except the flowers and the ripe berries are poisonous, containing cyanogenic glycoside sambunigrin. The bark harbors calcium oxalate crystals, which cause sores and numbing if ingested and can be fatal.

Fanta Shokata

The edible portions of the plant, the flowers and berries, are more popular in Europe, where soft drinks are actually made from the flowers. Oddly, I found conflicting information as to whether Sambucus is used to make the Italian liqueur, Sambuca. The principle flavor of this apertif is star anise and the website of the Molinari company, which has made the liqueur for generations, makes no mention of elderberries as an ingredient.

On the other hand, Romana Sambuca is quite clear about the involvement of Sambucus: “Romana Sambuca is made by taking a root of a liquorice shrub (a shrub that grows native to Asia and southern Europe) and extracting the glycyrrhizic acid, this is then infused with Witch Elderbush.”

The name “witch elderbush” refers to the folkloric medicinal uses of the shrub. All the advice at this blog refers to using the berries themselves and it specifically warns readers not to use the roots, leaves or bark of the plant, even if your reading of Indian herb lore suggests that you do so.

Elderberries

The cyanide that is produced by metabolizing the glucoside is apparently so abundant in the wood that one source cautions against the practice of using hollowed out stems to make whistles for children. Another source suggests using ointments and poultices made from the bark and leaves on burns and other topical problems, but most of the information conveyed concerns the use of the berries and flowers, which are generally thought to be helpful in digestion and dermatological problems, respectively.

Compared to Europe, in the United States the use of elderberries to make jams, preserves or wine is considered somewhat bucolic. Elderberry wine is almost the byword for sweet homemade jugged beverages, and I have always found the jams to be very seedy and to have a very mild flavor, albeit a beautiful red-tinged blue color.

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