Sambucus nigra (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Sambucus nigra L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 269 (1753).
Family: Caprifoliaceae (APG: Adoxaceae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 36

Vernacular names

  • Elderberry, black elder, elder, bore tree (En).
  • Sureau, grand sureau, sureau noir (Fr).
  • Sabugueiro-negro (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

Sambucus nigra occurs in temperate to tropical regions in Europe, Western Asia, northern Africa, North America and Central America. It is introduced in tropical Africa as a medicinal and ornamental plant, and is cultivated and naturalized in and around towns and villages in e.g. Ghana, Gabon, DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Angola.


Sambucus nigra is used throughout its distribution area as a medicinal plant and ornamental. In Gabon the flowers are used in preparations as an emollient and calming skin ointment, and to stimulate sweating.

Outside Africa, various parts of Sambucus nigra have long been used in traditional medicine as a diaphoretic, diuretic, astringent, laxative and emetic. Currently, extracts of the fruits are used primarily as antiviral agents in cases of colds, influenza and Herpes virus infection.

The inner bark is diuretic, a strong purgative and in large doses emetic. It is used in the treatment of constipation and arthritic conditions. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark. The fresh or dry leaves are purgative, but cause nausea more easily than the bark. They are also diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic. An ointment made from the leaves is emollient and is used in the treatment of bruises, sprains and wounds. An infusion of the fresh flowers is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a basis for eye and skin lotions. The dried flowers are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, galactagogue and pectoral. An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints, as a tonic and blood cleanser, and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes and to poultice burns and wounds. The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative. A tea made from the dried fruits is taken to treat colic and diarrhoea. The pith of young stems is used in treating burns and scalds. The leaves rubbed on the skin are used as an insect repellent. They can be made into insecticidal and fungicidal sprays.

The fruits are widely used for making wine, brandy, jams or pies. They are best not eaten raw as they are mildly poisonous, causing vomiting, particularly if eaten unripe. The mild cyanide toxicity is destroyed by cooking. The flowers are crisp and somewhat juicy, they have an aromatic smell and flavour and are delicious raw as a refreshing snack. The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams, and are an ingredient of fritters. They are often used to make a sparkling wine. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers.

Sambucus nigra is an excellent pioneer species for re-establishing woodlands in temperate regions. The bark of older branches and the root have been used as an ingredient in dyeing black. A green dye is obtained from the leaves when alum is used as a mordant. The fruits yield various shades of blue and purple dyes. They have also been used as a black hair dye. The blue colouring matter from the fruit can be used as a litmus. It turns green in an alkaline solution and red in an acid solution. The pith of young branches pushes out easily and the hollow stems thus made have been used as pipes for blowing air into a fire. They can also be made into flutes. The pith of the stems is used in the slicing of samples for viewing under a microscope. The wood is white and fine-textured. It is easily cut and polishes well. It is used for making skewers, mathematical instruments and toys. Sambucus nigra is widely planted as an ornamental; in Africa it is mainly cultivated in hedges.

Production and international trade

Sambucus nigra is planted only occasionally in tropical Africa and is not traded there.


The fruit contains several constituents responsible for its pharmacological activity. Among these are the flavonoids quercetin, kaempferol and rutin, the anthocyanins cyanidin- 3-glucoside and cyanidin-3-sambubioside, the haemagglutinin protein Sambucus nigra agglutinin III (SNA-III), cyanogenic glycosides including sambunigrin, and viburnic acid, ellagic acid and ursolic acid. The flowers contain flavonoids (up to 3%) composed mainly of flavonol glycosides (astragalin, hyperoside, isoquercitrin, and rutin up to 1.9%) and free aglycones (quercetin and kaempferol), phenolic compounds (about 3% chlorogenic acid), triterpenes (about 1%) including α- and β-amyrin, triterpene acids (mainly ursolic and oleanolic acid), sterols and volatile oils.

In several clinical and in vitro studies, Sambucol®, a syrup containing 38% standardized fruit extract, was shown to neutralize and reduce the infectivity of influenza viruses A and B, HIV strains and clinical isolates, and Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) strains and clinical isolates. This syrup also shows immune-modulating activity, by increasing significantly the production of several cytokines, e.g. tumour necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), and interleukins.

The anthocyanins from the fruits possess antioxidant properties. A water extract of the flowers increased glucose uptake, glucose oxidation, and glycogenesis in rat abdominal muscle. The flower extract incubated with rat pancreatic cells also had a dose-dependent stimulatory effect on insulin secretion.


Deciduous shrub up to 4(–6) m tall, with unpleasant smell; main root vertical, spreading horizontally by stolons; stems up to 15 cm in diameter. Leaves opposite, imparipinnately compound, petiolate; leaflets 5–11(–15), narrowly elliptical, 5–9(–11) cm × 2–3(–4) cm, base cuneate to obtuse, apex acuminate, margin toothed. Inflorescence a large terminal umbel-like panicle, up to 20 cm in diameter. Flowers bisexual, 5-merous, regular, white, sweet-scented; pedicel 0–10 mm long, shortly hairy; calyx fused to the ovary, lobes minute; corolla lobes almost free, oblong-ovate, 3–4 mm long, radiate; stamens alternating with the corolla lobes; ovary half-inferior, 5-celled, stigma sessile, 5-lobed. Fruit a globose, fleshy, berry-like drupe 4–7 mm long, green, purple to black when ripe, with 3–5 1-seeded pyrenes.

Other botanical information

Sambucus comprises 9 species. Most species occur in the temperate and subtropical regions of the northern hemisphere, 2 occur in South America, 1 in the mountain region of East Africa (Sambucus ebulus L. (synonym: Sambucus africana Standl.)) and 2 in eastern Australia. In Sambucus nigra 6 subspecies are recognized, and notably the variable subspecies canadensis (L.) R.Bolli (synonyms: Sambucus canadensis L., Sambucus mexicana Presl ex DC.) invades tropical regions, and is naturalized here and there. It is most probably this subspecies which is naturalized in tropical Africa. It hardly fruits here, probably due to a lack of stratification of the seeds. In most recent taxonomic publications, subspecies canadensis is treated at species level, as Sambucus canadensis. The flowers of Sambucus nigra are pollinated by flies and the seeds are dispersed by the defecation of birds and mammals.


Sambucus nigra occurs in hedgerows, shrubland, open forest, roadsides, waste places and on disturbed soils.


Sambucus nigra is propagated by seed or stolons. Seed is best sown as soon as it is ripe at the start of the cold season, so it can germinate at the start of the warm season. Stored seed can be sown at the start of the warm season but will probably germinate better if it is given 2 months cold stratification first. The seedlings can be transplanted 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 warm season.

Sambucus species are notably resistant to honey fungus, Armillaria sp.

Genetic resources

Sambucus nigra mainly reproduces through stolons in tropical Africa. The genetic diversity in each introduction site is probably low, as the species does not produce much seed in tropical climates. As Sambucus nigra is a widely dispersed species in the northern hemisphere, it is not threatened by genetic erosion. There are no large germplasm collections. In Europe there exist some fruit cultivars with big fruits, and some ornamental cultivars with dissected or variegated leaves.


Sambucus nigra has been introduced in tropical Africa as a medicinal and ornamental plant. As it not really adapted to the tropical climate, it probably will remain of little importance.

Major references

  • Bolli, R., 1994. Revision of the genus Sambucus. Dissertationes Botanicae 223, Berlin, Stuttgart, Germany. 256 pp.
  • Ensermu Kelbessa, 2003. Caprifoliaceae. In: Hedberg, I., Edwards, S. & Sileshi Nemomissa (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 4, part 1. Apiaceae to Dipsacaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 283–284.
  • Lawalrée, A., 1982. Caprifoliaceae. In: Bamps, P. (Editor). Flore d’Afrique centrale. Spermatophytes. Jardin botanique national de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium. 6 pp.
  • Raponda-Walker, A. & Sillans, R., 1961. Les plantes utiles du Gabon. Paul Lechevalier, Paris, France. 614 pp.
  • Zakay-Rones, Z., Thorn, E., Wollan, T. & Wadstein, J., 2004. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. Journal of International Medicinal Research 32: 132–140.

Other references

  • Barak, V., Birkenfeld, S., Halperin, T. & Kalickman, I., 2002. The effect of herbal remedies on the production of human inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Israel Medical Association Journal 4: S919–S922.
  • Bitsch, I., Janssen, M., Netzel, M., Strass, G. & Frank, T., 2004. Bioavailability of anthocyanidin-3-glycosides following consumption of elderberry extract and blackcurrant juice. International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics 42: 293–300.
  • Burkill, H.M., 2000. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 5, Families S–Z, Addenda. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 686 pp.
  • Gray, A.M., Abdel-Wahab, Y.H. & Flatt, P.R., 2000. The traditional plant treatment, Sambucus nigra (elder), exhibits insulin-like and insulin-releasing actions in vitro. Journal of Nutrition 130: 15–20.
  • Launert, E., 1981. Edible and Medicinal Plants. Hamlyn, London.
  • Thorne Research, 2005. Sambucus nigra (elderberry): monograph. Alternative Medicine Review 10(1): 51–55.
  • Verdcourt, B., 1968. Caprifoliaceae. In: Milne-Redhead, E. & Polhill, R.M. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 4 pp.
  • Yamada, T., 1999. A report of the ethnobotany of the Nyindu in the eastern part of the former Zaire. African Study Monographs 20(1): 1–72.
  • Youdim, K.A., Martin, A. & Joseph, J.A., 2000. Incorporation of the elderberry anthocyanins by endothelial cells increases protection against oxidative stress. Free Radical Biology and Medicine 29: 51–60.


  • F.S. Mairura, Kenya Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of CIAT, P.O. Box 30677, Nairobi, Kenya

Correct citation of this article

Mairura, F.S., 2007. Sambucus nigra L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 27 January 2023.