Black elder (Sambucus nigra) is a shrub originating in Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. It belongs to the Musk family (Adoxaceae) and is known for its medicinal properties.
In the past, it was a highly valued and widely used plant. The fruit juice was used for dyeing fabrics or making compotes, syrups, wine, and liquors. Its inflorescence was coated in butter and baked like pancakes.
In folk medicine, all parts of the plant had their uses – to relieve toothache, fever, cough, to stop nosebleeds, or for burns, etc.
In the past, black elder had an irreplaceable role in folklore and mythology. It was believed to drive away evil spirits and protect people from diseases. It used to be a protective plant against black magic and witches as well. It was also believed to be a fire and lightning protectant. That is why people often planted elder in gardens, near houses and barns. It also represented a symbol of death (black fruits) and birth (white flowers).
Elderberries are an important source of food for animals. They have a high content of nutrients and are a favorite food of birds, such as thrushes and starlings.
Despite its many benefits, if eaten raw or unripe, elder can be poisonous. Its leaves, bark, roots, and fruits contain sambunigrin – a glycoside, which in combination with gastric juices forms hydrogen cyanide which can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Properly cooked elderberry products are, however, safe to eat.