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Sambucus nigra spp canadensis, American Black Elder

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A fast-growing but short-lived plant, it often forms thickets by means of root suckers. It is cultivated for its edible fruit & as an ornamental tree. Yields of up to 7kg of fruit per tree have been recorded.

Tolerates most soils, including chalk, but prefers a moist loamy soil. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Tolerates some shade but is best in a sunny position. Tolerates atmospheric pollution and coastal situations.

A very hardy plant, when dormant it tolerates temperatures down to about -34°c. The flowers have a muscatel smell.

The leaves and inner bark of young shoots are used as an insect repellent, the dried flowering shoots are said to repel insects and rodents. A decoction of the leaves can be used as an insecticide. It is prepared by boiling 3 - 4 handfuls of leaves in a litre of water, then straining and allowing to cool before applying. Effective against many insects, it also treats various fungal infections such as leaf rot and powdery mildew.

A black dye is obtained from the bark.

When grown near a compost heap, the root activity of this plant encourages fermentation in the compost heap.

The stems can be easily hollowed out to be used as drains in tapping the sap from trees such as the Sugar Maples (Acer spp). the stems can also be used as whistles and flutes.

American elder was widely employed as a medicinal herb by many native North American tribes who used it to treat a wide range of complaints. It is still commonly used as a domestic remedy.

Can be sown in the spring in a cold frame but will probably germinate better if it is given 2 months warm followed by 2 months cold stratification first. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. If good growth is made, the young plants can be placed in their permanent positions during the early summer. Otherwise, either put them in a sheltered nursery bed, or keep them in their pots in a sheltered position and plant them out in spring of the following year.

Edible uses

Fruit - raw or cooked. A bittersweet flavour, the fruits are about 5mm in diameter and are borne in large clusters. They are at their best after being dried, the fresh raw fruit has a rather rank taste. The fruit is normally cooked and used in pies, jams, jellies, sauces, bread etc. Rich in vitamin C.

Some caution is advised: the leaves and stems of this species are poisonous. The fruit has been known to cause stomach upsets to some people. The unripe fruit contains a toxic alkaloid and cyanogenic glycosides. Any toxin the fruit might contain is liable to be of very low toxicity and is destroyed when the fruit is cooked.

Flowers - raw or cooked. They are often covered in batter and made into fritters. The flowers can be picked when unopened, pickled and then used as a flavouring in candies etc. They can also be soaked in water to make a drink. A pleasant tasting tea is made from the dried flowers.

Young shoots are said to be edible when cooked and to be used as an asparagus substitute though, since the leaves are also said to be poisonous, this report should be viewed with some doubt.

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