Frequently (and not so frequently) Asked Questions
BRIEF: Are Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra similar?
I am from the United Kingdom and have an interest in a native plant here called Sambucus Nigra ( the Elderberry). I have a web page with regard to its uses (www.patch-work.demon.co.uk/elder.htm). I often get enquiries about the plant 'Sambucus Canadensis', the American Elderberry. Can you advise me whether the fruit and flowers of the latter can also be used safely in wine making and sauces etc. like the Sambucus Nigra? I am concerned that Americans may view my web site and experiment with a different variety with uncomfortable or even dangerous consequences.
The fresh ripe fruit of the many elderberry species found in the US (from canadensis to mexicana!) is tasty and harmless. The ripe berries add high color to wine (and the Portuguese authorities don't like to see it used in wines because it is too easy to fake a port with these berries). The stems, leaves, roots and bark (and unripe berries?) are toxic with three general types of toxins: cyanogenic glycosides (release CN!), nitrates (on some soils) and a mishmash of unidentified alkaloids. When self-styled "wildcrafters" have mixed elderberry leaves in with wines and elderberry dishes they have succeeded in poisoning people. It is written that making pea shooters and whistles from elderberry stems has poisoned children, too. It never hurt me when I was a kid, but I always worked with pretty dead and dried stems, so at least the cyanide would have been gone; I didn't suck on them enough to extract the alkaloids; I would have had to eat the damned things to get enough nitrates to bother me and I may have been just lucky...