Herbs in History: Elderberry


Sambucus nigra L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | December 2022

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Simple, Yet Valuable

Sambucus nigra

Illustration 1: Sambucus nigra L. 

A representation of Elder in a copy of the Greek text of Dioscorides, De materia medica

Illustration 2: A representation of Elder (right) in a copy of the Greek text of Dioscorides, De materia medica: manuscript now Napoli, Biblioteca Nazionale, MS ex Vindobonensis Graecus 1, 6th/7th century, possibly Southern Italy, the so-called Dioscorides Neapolitanus, f. 20 recto

Black Elder (Sambucus nigra L., Adoxaceae) is an easy-growing multi-stemmed deciduous shrub or small tree typical of the North-central European landscape, close to farms and farmhouses, in gardens, and in hedges, with fetid leaves, aromatic late-spring flowers, and clusters of glossy black edible fruits in late summer. It is native to Europe, southwestern Asia, and northern Africa, growing in temperate to subtropical regions, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, with some populations in parts of Australasia and South America (Illustration 1).

Medieval Transformations

Already used for a great many gynaecological conditions and dropsy in the corpus of writings ascribed to the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates (5th-4th cent. BCE), Black Elder appears in the Historia Plantarum (Inquiry into Plants) by Theophrastus (4th-3rd cent. BCE) where it is cited among the species used for carpentry. Later, it is well described in the largest compilation on materia medica assembled in Antiquity, De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. CE), with rush-like stems (referring to the soft pith which can easily be pushed out, resulting in pipes like the hollow stems of rushes), leaves with a heavy scent, white flowers, and a fruit similar to that of terebinth, black, in clusters, and full of a wine-like juice. It is credited with general refreshing and hydragogue properties generating several therapeutic applications: the root boiled in wine helps patients suffering of dropsy, and boiled with water it treats gynaecological conditions; the fresh leaves applied externally reduce inflammations, are good against burnings, and can be applied externally in cases of gout; leaves boiled as vegetables eliminate excessive bile and phlegm; and the fruit taken with wine does the same, in addition to dyeing hair in black (Illustration 2).
The range of uses of Black Elder increased over time, earning it the nickname of medicine chest of country people. But, already in Antiquity, it was implicitly credited with such currently identified properties as anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, emollient, and purgative.
Strangely enough, though used for such beneficial, though simple properties and administered for the treatment of a range of medical conditions that probably made the daily life of ancient populations without toxicity of any kind, Elder became a sinister plant in the Middle Ages. According to some medieval tradition, the Holy Cross on the Calvary was made of its wood in a use that might have derived from the practice of carpentry attested as early as Theophrastus. The late-medieval English tale according to which the traitor Apostle, Judas, hung himself on a Black Elder is less understandable as Elder is a low bushy plant! The fact is that Elder became a symbol of grief and sorrow, and even death. Its black fruits might have generated a feeling of the darkness usually associated with death.
This inversion in the cultural meaning and values attributed to Elder, from a therapeutic plant to a symbol of desperation and death, is best exemplified by the relationship of Elder to fire. On the positive side, the very name Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, which means fire. This naming is believed to come from the use of emptying the Elder’s branches of the pith to make blowpipes. And this practice of pushing out the pith is ancient as we already found a reference to it in the description of Elder in Dioscorides. In this view, Elder generates the fire in a way that might have recalled the ancient mythology of Herakles steeling fire from the gods and allowing humans to thrive. This positive relationship to fire was inverted at a certain point in time, with the avoidance of using Elder wood to kindle a fire or even of throwing Elder wood in fires. This could be a sign of respect as the wood of the Holy Cross was supposed to have been made of Elder, something that transformed ipso facto Elder in Holy Wood. But it could also be the expression of the fear of liberating or offending the spirits believed to live in Elder.  Elder was indeed surrounded by a whole body of legends, superstitions and magical practices, particularly in England, and it was believed, among others, to protect against witches. This is why its leaves were affixed on the doors and windows of houses, to prevent charms, spells, and the evil eye from entering.

Delving Deeper

In its simplicity, Elder was almost anonymous and poorly understood, if at all studied. This went very far, even reaching modern taxonomy. The name of the family in which Elder belongs is a sign of this: Adoxaceae. The name is formed on the Latin term adoxos explained in antiquity as meaning humble, made of simple matter. The Latin term itself is in fact a copy of a Greek adjective that means inglorious, obscure, anonymous. The Greek term expresses the absence of doxa, referring to the very Greek concept of doxa. In the ancient Greek World, doxa was the favorable reputation, the respect that a citizen could earn through a life of service to the community, brilliant actions, bravery in war, or also literary, philosophical, and scientific achievements. The family name Adoxaceae was crafted a little bit less than two centuries ago, in 1839, by the Botanist German botanist and historian of botany Ernst Heinrich Friedrich Meyer (1791–1858) on the basis of the species Adoxa moschatellina of Linnaeus.
Linnaeus’ designation is particularly interesting. While Linnaeus simply lists the Adoxa moschatellina in his Species Plantarum first published in 1753 and, before, in the Genera Plantarum of 1737, without any other detail than the description, in Hortus Cliffortianus (1737) he explained his name of the genus Adoxa. This was in fact the previous genus Moschatellina, which Linnaeus transformed into Adoxa for the following reason:

Moschatellina … [is] replaced by Adoxa because it is a plant .. which does not exhibit a splendid appearance favorable to itself, no ornament, no glory, but deviates from any theory or systematic doctrine based on the number of the parts in the organ for fructification …

A plant not only deprived of any remarkable characteristic, neither esthetic nor botanical, but also aberrant in the system that Linnaeus was trying to build. This is probably the most significant element: it was incomprehensible and might have ruined the construction of Linnaeus’ system!
The new name attributed to genus is far from innocent: Linnaeus perfectly knew his Latin and classical culture. Denying doxa to a plant without special characteristics was more than just considering it anonymous or banal. It was as a negation of its right to be part of the community of the plant world, just as the lack of doxa (adoxia) in the ancient Greek city was a mark of inferiority, a stigma, almost a bad omen. It is probably not insignificant that the Adoxaceae family is a very small one, with just four genera (among which Sambucus) and some 200 species.
After the German botanist Meyer transformed it into a family name in his 1839 publication, English language included it in its lexicon in 1892 according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary with the following definition:

A family of herbs (order Rubiales) by some included in the Caprifoliaceae but distinguished by having flowers without a calyx and with the stamens inserted in pairs on the tube of the corolla.

More Confusion

This infelicitous designation was only one sign of the misfortune of Elder in modern botanical literature. The story has its roots in the ancient literature. In classical Latin, indeed, Elder was named in two different ways: acte and sambucus. Both are the transcription into Latin alphabet and adaptation to Latin phonetic of two Greek terms. Whereas acte is not problematic as it clearly refers to Elder designed aktê in Greek, sambucus, instead, coming from sambukê in Greek, is apparently enigmatic. In the modern botanical literature, it has been connected to a musical instrument described by no less than the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) as some sort of harp, with a triangular form and four cords producing such a strident sound that it was rarely used. And by similarity, the term sambukê was also used to designate a triangular military instrument used to attack the fortification of cities, a sort of catapult. Nothing that might have recalled in any way the Elder tree.
Whereas Linnaeus perfectly knew is Latin, other botanists might not have. Or at the very least, not so well. The connection of the phytonym sambucus with the musical instrument is incorrect. Sambucus in classical Latin did not refer, indeed, to the instrument, which was designed by the term sambuca, supposedly of oriental origin and designating a reticulated structure, possibly that of the cords of a harp. Sambucus, instead, which was written in different variant forms as sambicus or sabucus (hinting at a lexical novelty in classical Latin), was the term for Elder. The proof that this is the designation of Elder comes from one of its derivatives in classical Latin: sambucina. This term designated a flautist, that is, a musician playing sambu-. Sambucus designated a pipe (here, a flute), most probably an Elder stem that had been emptied of its pith according to a practice attested as early as Dioscorides who compared Elder and hollow rushes.
The blowguns of children in earlier decades, in a time when toys in the countryside were made of handy material obtained for free from the environment, should have provided the key! If the name Sambuca of the Sicilian town is supposed to result from the abundant presence of Elder in the area, the Sambuca wine from Sicily is not made with the plant, as is not either the Italian Sambuca, made instead of anise.

The corymbs of Elder

Illustration 3: The corymbs of Elder 

Better Days

Although both this false etymology and the negative Linnean classification will probably have a long life in botany and the history of the discipline, Elderberry is undergoing a well-deserved process of rehabilitation not only as a medicine, but also as a delicacy, with elderberry jam, delicious with vanilla ice cream, or, even more delicate, Italian fritelle di fiori di sambuco (elderflowers fritters) that is, the young corymbs covered with a light batter of flour and fried, resulting in an exquisite delicacy ideals for late-spring afternoon snacks (Illustration 3).
In medicine, Elder comes back with a great many uses. Until not so long ago its leaves was used to make the Oleum viride, with one part of bruised leaves and three parts of linseed oil, resulting in an oil color verdigris. Flowers were used fresh in June for the distillation of Elder Flower Water.  More recently, its flowers and leaves are recommended as a stimulant agent, diuretic, purgative and even emetic in larger doses, expectorant and pectoral, galactagogue, diaphoretic, and emollient. Infusions of the leaves are beneficial in the treatment of chest complaints and are also efficacious as collyrium for bathing inflamed eyes. They are an excellent tonic in the Spring and a blood cleanser. A tea of the dried fruit is a good remedy of colic and diarrhea, and the fresh fruits are used to make an aromatized wine which has all the properties of the plants as Dioscorides already noted. Last but not least, the soft pith that most characterized Elder from Antiquity and transformed it in a flute owing it its Latin name, has been used to treat burns and scalds.

Literature (selection, chronological order)

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