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Sambucus

Sambucus ebulus - Danewort, or dwarf elder

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Dwarf elder differs from the more familiar red elderberry (S. racemosa) in being a perennial, not a woody species. The stems, which don’t branch, can grow to two metres in a single summer. It produces 10-15 cm wide corymbs of white flowers at the tips of the stems in late summer, and these later develop into black berries. It is not the best species for small gardens because it spreads aggressively.

Dwarf elder is often marked ”all parts poisonous” in nursery catalogues, and perhaps to emphasise this the plant has a strong, unpleasant smell. In earlier times there was a belief that strong smells meant strong effects; all parts of dwarf elder have been used in medication. It was a complete chemist’s shop, providing a cure for almost every ill. In addition, it could be used for dying hair and cloth.

The alternative common name Danewort dates back to the 1500s, when it was believed the plant generated from Danish blood. This was because the plant occurred on the sites of ancient battles between the English and the Danes. Perhaps a more everyday explanation might be that it had been planted in memory of the fallen.

 

Sambucus racemosa - red elderberry

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Although red elderberry is fairly common in Finland as far north as Oulu, it is not a native species but was imported from central Europe hundreds of years ago. During the last hundred years it has escaped from gardens and become a normal feature of the landscape.

The species favours fertile spots. The leaves smell unpleasant when touched, but in many other ways this is an attractive shrub. The leaves flush reddish brown from red-violet buds in spring, following the lead of the flower buds. Creamy conical flower clusters decorate the shrub in early summer and are followed in autumn by shiny red berries, which taste unpleasant and are mildly poisonous for humans. However, birds like them and spread the seeds, though red elderberry is seldom found in modern gardens. Being fast-growing, it makes a good protective hedge but as an individual specimen it eventually takes on an attractive arching habit, if snow doesn’t snap the branches. It recovers quickly from trimming and removal of damaged branches.

 

Sambucus canadensis (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis) - American elder

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American elder closely resembles the European species, common elder (S. nigra), and is sometimes considered its subspecies. It is a fast-growing, luxuriant, multi-stemmed shrub producing root suckers, unlike the common elder. Leaves are large, with 5-9 leaflets, giving the shrub an exotic look. American elder flowers in August, after the common elder, with white, scented corymbs. The blue-black berries seldom have time to ripen in Finland. There is conflicting information about their edibility. Ripe and cooked berries have been traditionally used for juices or jams, but there are also reports of the berries causing nausea and vomiting. Other parts of the plant are mildly poisonous. Berries, roots and bark can be used as vegetable dyes, the bark producing a black dye. Branches of dried flowers have been used to repel insects.

 

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