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Sambucus canadensis - (L.) R. Bolli                
Common Name American Elder
Family Caprifoliaceae
Synonyms Sambucus canadensis. Sambucus mexicana
Known Hazards The leaves and stems of this species are poisonous[9, 76]. The fruit has been known to cause stomach upsets to some people[65, 76]. The unripe fruit contains a toxic alkaloid and cyanogenic glycosides[274]. Any toxin the fruit might contain is liable to be of very low toxicity and is destroyed when the fruit is cooked[65, 76].
Habitats Rich moist soils along streams and rivers, woodland margins and waste ground[229].
Range Eastern N. America - Nova Scotia to Florida, west to Manitoba and Texas.
Edibility Rating  
Medicinal Rating  
Fully Hardy Moist Soil Semi-shade Full sun


Physical Characteristics       
 icon of manicon of shrub
Sambucus canadensis is a deciduous Shrub growing to 4 m (13ft) by 4 m (13ft) at a fast rate.
It is hardy to zone (UK) 3. It is in flower in July, and the seeds ripen in September. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Insects.

USDA hardiness zone : Coming soon

Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and can grow in heavy clay soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil. The plant can tolerates strong winds but not maritime exposure.
It can tolerate atmospheric pollution.

Sambucus canadensis American Elder
Sambucus canadensis American Elder
Woodland Garden Sunny Edge; Dappled Shade; Shady Edge;
Edible Uses                                         
Edible Parts: Flowers;  Fruit;  Leaves.
Edible Uses: Tea.

Fruit - raw or cooked[2, 3, 55, 85, 257]. A bittersweet flavour, the fruits are about 5mm in diameter and are borne in large clusters[200, 227]. They are at their best after being dried[62], the fresh raw fruit has a rather rank taste[101]. The fruit is normally cooked and used in pies, jams, jellies, sauces, bread etc[62, 159, 183]. Rich in vitamin C[183]. Some caution is advised, see notes above on toxicity. Flowers - raw or cooked. They are often covered in batter and made into fritters[105]. The flowers can be picked when unopened, pickled and then used as a flavouring in candies etc[149, 227]. They can also be soaked in water to make a drink[149]. A pleasant tasting tea is made from the dried flowers[21, 159, 183, 257]. Young shoots are said to be edible when cooked and to be used as an asparagus substitute[55, 105] though, since the leaves are also said to be poisonous, this report should be viewed with some doubt.
Medicinal Uses

Plants For A Future can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Antiinflammatory;  Aperient;  Birthing aid;  Diaphoretic;  Diuretic;  Emetic;  Expectorant;  Laxative;  Purgative;  Stimulant.

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[257]. It is still commonly used as a domestic remedy. A tea made from the inner bark and root bark is diuretic, emetic and a strong laxative[222, 257]. A tea made from the root bark is used to promote labour in childbirth and in treating headaches, kidney problems and mucous congestion[21, 257]. The inner bark is also applied as a poultice to cuts, sore or swollen limbs etc in order to relieve pain and swelling[222, 257]. A poultice of the leaves is applied to bruises and to cuts in order to stop the bleeding[222]. An infusion of the leaf buds is strongly purgative[21]. Elder flowers are stimulant, diaphoretic and diuretic[213, 257]. A warm tea of the flowers is stimulant and induces sweating, taken cold it is diuretic[21]. It is used in the treatment of fevers and infant colic[257]. An infusion of the leaves and flowers is used as an antiseptic wash for skin problems, wounds etc[21]. The fresh juice of the fruit, evaporated into a syrup, is laxative. It also makes a good ointment for treating burns when mixed with an oily base[21]. The dried fruit can be made into a tea that is useful in the treatment of cholera and diarrhoea[21]. Some caution should be exercised if using any part of the plant fresh since it can cause poisoning[21].
Other Uses
Compost;  Dye;  Fungicide;  Insecticide;  Musical;  Repellent;  Straw.

The leaves and inner bark of young shoots are used as an insect repellent[6, 101, 149, 159, 257], the dried flowering shoots are said to repel insects and rodents[101]. A decoction of the leaves can be used as an insecticide[201]. 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[201]. A black dye is obtained from the bark[149]. When grown near a compost heap, the root activity of this plant encourages fermentation in the compost heap[18]. 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[149, 159].
Cultivation details                                         
Tolerates most soils, including chalk[200], but prefers a moist loamy soil[11, 200]. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Tolerates some shade but is best in a sunny position[1]. Tolerates atmospheric pollution and coastal situations[200]. A very hardy plant, when dormant it tolerates temperatures down to about -34°c[200]. The flowers have a muscatel smell[245]. A fast-growing but short-lived plant[229], it often forms thickets by means of root suckers[200]. It is occasionally cultivated for its edible fruit, there are several named varieties[183], though these have mainly been developed for their ornamental value[182]. Yields of up to 7kg of fruit per tree have been recorded[160]. Plants in this genus are notably resistant to honey fungus[200].
Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a cold frame, when it should germinate in early spring. Stored seed 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[78, 98, 113]. 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. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 7 - 10cm with a heel, July/August in a frame[78]. Cuttings of mature wood of the current season's growth, 15 - 20cm with a heel, late autumn in a frame or a sheltered outdoor bed[78]. Division of suckers in the dormant season.
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Expert comment                                         
(L.) R. Bolli
Botanical References                                         
Links / References                                         

[1]F. Chittendon. RHS Dictionary of Plants plus Supplement. 1956
Comprehensive listing of species and how to grow them. Somewhat outdated, it has been replaces in 1992 by a new dictionary (see [200]).
[2]Hedrick. U. P. Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World.
Lots of entries, quite a lot of information in most entries and references.
[3]Simmons. A. E. Growing Unusual Fruit.
A very readable book with information on about 100 species that can be grown in Britain (some in greenhouses) and details on how to grow and use them.
[6]Mabey. R. Plants with a Purpose.
Details on some of the useful wild plants of Britain. Poor on pictures but otherwise very good.
[11]Bean. W. Trees and Shrubs Hardy in Great Britain. Vol 1 - 4 and Supplement.
A classic with a wealth of information on the plants, but poor on pictures.
[18]Philbrick H. and Gregg R. B. Companion Plants.
Details of beneficial and antagonistic relationships between neighbouring plants.
[21]Lust. J. The Herb Book.
Lots of information tightly crammed into a fairly small book.
[55]Harris. B. C. Eat the Weeds.
Interesting reading.
[62]Elias. T. and Dykeman. P. A Field Guide to N. American Edible Wild Plants.
Very readable.
[78]Sheat. W. G. Propagation of Trees, Shrubs and Conifers.
A bit dated but a good book on propagation techniques with specific details for a wide range of plants.
[85]Harrington. H. D. Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains.
A superb book. Very readable, it gives the results of the authors experiments with native edible plants.
[98]Gordon. A. G. and Rowe. D. C. f. Seed Manual for Ornamental Trees and Shrubs.
Very comprehensive guide to growing trees and shrubs from seed. Not for the casual reader.
[101]Turner. N. J. and Szczawinski. A. Edible Wild Fruits and Nuts of Canada.
A very readable guide to some wild foods of Canada.
[105]Tanaka. T. Tanaka's Cyclopaedia of Edible Plants of the World.
The most comprehensive guide to edible plants I've come across. Only the briefest entry for each species, though, and some of the entries are more than a little dubious. Not for the casual reader.
[113]Dirr. M. A. and Heuser. M. W. The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation.
A very detailed book on propagating trees. Not for the casual reader.
[149]Vines. R. A. Trees of Central Texas.
Fairly readable, it gives details of habitats and some of the uses of trees growing in Texas.
[159]McPherson. A. and S. Wild Food Plants of Indiana.
A nice pocket guide to this region of America.
[160]Natural Food Institute, Wonder Crops. 1987.
Fascinating reading, this is an annual publication. Some reports do seem somewhat exaggerated though.
[182]Thomas. G. S. Ornamental Shrubs, Climbers and Bamboos.
Contains a wide range of plants with a brief description, mainly of their ornamental value but also usually of cultivation details and varieties.
[183]Facciola. S. Cornucopia - A Source Book of Edible Plants.
Excellent. Contains a very wide range of conventional and unconventional food plants (including tropical) and where they can be obtained (mainly N. American nurseries but also research institutes and a lot of other nurseries from around the world.
[200]Huxley. A. The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening. 1992.
Excellent and very comprehensive, though it contains a number of silly mistakes. Readable yet also very detailed.
[201]Allardice.P. A - Z of Companion Planting.
A well produced and very readable book.
[213]Weiner. M. A. Earth Medicine, Earth Food.
A nice book to read though it is difficult to look up individual plants since the book is divided into separate sections dealing with the different medicinal uses plus a section on edible plants. Common names are used instead of botanical.
[222]Foster. S. & Duke. J. A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. Eastern and Central N. America.
A concise book dealing with almost 500 species. A line drawing of each plant is included plus colour photographs of about 100 species. Very good as a field guide, it only gives brief details about the plants medicinal properties.
[227]Vines. R.A. Trees of North Texas
A readable guide to the area, it contains descriptions of the plants and their habitats with quite a bit of information on plant uses.
[229]Elias. T. The Complete Trees of N. America. Field Guide and Natural History.
A very good concise guide. Gives habitats, good descriptions, maps showing distribution and a few of the uses. It also includes the many shrubs that occasionally reach tree proportions.
[245]Genders. R. Scented Flora of the World.
An excellent, comprehensive book on scented plants giving a few other plant uses and brief cultivation details. There are no illustrations.
[257]Moerman. D. Native American Ethnobotany
Very comprehensive but terse guide to the native uses of plants. Excellent bibliography, fully referenced to each plant, giving a pathway to further information. Not for the casual reader.

Readers comment                                         
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