Sambucus mexicana C. Presl


Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family)




Mexican Elderberry


Blue Elderberry


                                          June Photo


Plant Characteristics:  Tree, 2 to 8 m. tall, lvs. glabrous to pubescent or hispidulous beneath, odd-pinnate, lfts. mostly 3-5, roundish to ovate or oblong-lanceolate, rather abruptly acuminate, mostly 1.5-6 cm. long, finely serrate; infl. mostly .3-1 dm. across; corolla regular, rotate, 5-lobed; stamens 5,  inserted at base of the corolla; ovary 3-5 loculed; style short; stigmas 3-5; berries either blue or white, glaucous.


Habitat:  Open flats and cismontane valleys and canyons below 4500 ft.; largely Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral, S. Oak Wd.; n. L. Calif, n. to cent. Calif.; occasional in desert mts. and to Ariz., etc.  Below 3000 m. March-Sept.


Name:  Sambucus is from a Greek word for a musical instrument made from elder wood.  Mexicana indicates that the plant is from that country.  (Dale 91).  The first specimens to be named may have come from Mexico but the species is native to s. Calif. and Baja Calif.  (John Johnson).


General:  Common in the study area.  Photographed along the road between the Newporter Inn and San Joaquin Hills Dr. and along the path from 23rd Street to the Delhi area.  (my comments).     Indians found this a most versatile plant.  They not only ate the fruit, they made a soothing tea from the dried blossoms for fevers or spread it externally on sprains and itches.  After pushing out the pith in the wood, they turned it into flutes or clappers.  They also used the wood to make bows.  The fruit can be used for pies and jams.  (Dale 91).     Dried inner bark has been used for centuries as a dependable purgative.  The bark of the root is violently purgative and dangerous.  An ointment made from the leaves is good for bruises and sprains.  Fresh flowers are used to produce perspiration as is the wine made from the berries.  (Coon 196).      A black dye from the twigs and fruit was used in basketry.  The fresh fruit is not always palatable but after drying or cooking it can be used for sauces, jellies, wines and syrups.  The flavor is  similar to boysenberry.  Wine is also made from the flowers.  (Clarke 40).      Elderberry berries are a source of purple dye.  If leaves are added the dye will be black.  Elderberry fruit is best dried or cooked, the flowers are also edible. (lecture by Charlotte Clarke, author of Useful and Edible Plants of California, April 1987).     The birds eat the ripe berries and it was almost two years before I could find a ripe clump to photograph.  (my comment).       S. mexicana has been known to accumulate free nitrates in quantities capable of causing death or distress in cattle. (Fuller 385).      In his interesting book, The Folk-Lore of Plants, Mr. Thistleton Dyer says that S. glauca was reputed to be possessed of magic power, and that any baptized person whose eyes had been anointed with the green juice of its inner bark could recognize witches anywhere.  One of the trees is suspected as having furnished wood for the Cross; and to this day the English country people believe themselves safe from lightning when standing under an elder, because lightning never strikes the tree of which the cross was made.  (Parsons-page not recorded)

Sambucus mexicana, page two


Parson's book was published in 1909.  (my comment).      The Cahuilla, Indians of the Colorado Desert, the Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains, used  Elderberry for food, medicine, dye and to make whistles. (Bean and Saubel 138).     The most frequent use of Elder is to stimulate sweating in dry fevers.  The flowers are the mildest and safest form of the plant, even suitable to be given to small children with equal parts of peppermint as a weak tea; a home remedy of ancient usage for breaking fevers.  It is advisable when making Elderberry jam or wine to strain out the seeds which contain hydrocyanic acid and sambucine, a nauseating alkaloid found mostly in the bark and root of the plant.  The fresh flowers steeped in water overnight are a widely used face conditioner. (Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West 73).      Sambucus canadensis has many of the same properties as S. mexicana.  (Hutchens 84)       Roots, stems and leaves of all species are dangerously poisonous.  Uncooked berries may cause diarrhea and vomiting.  Children making whistles or blowguns out of the dried stems of S. canadensis have been poisoned.  (James 81).      Song birds, bandtailed pigeons and grouse are fond of the berries.  Among the animals; rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and rats eat the fruit and bark; deer eat the foliage.  A decoction of the leaves is supposed to keep caterpillars from eating plants.  (Sweet 31).      The Southern Diegueno Indians made a skirt from the inner bark the S. mexicanus.  (Campbell 218).       About 20 species of temperate and subtropical regions.  (Munz, Flora So. Calif. 333).       Variable, currently impossible to split into unified subgroups; detailed study warranted.  (Hickman, Ed. 474).


Text Ref:  Hickman, Ed. 474; Munz, Flora So. Calif. 333; Roberts 17.

Photo Ref: May 2 83 # 12,13; April-May 84 # 24; June 1 86 # 13.    

Identity: by R. De Ruff, confirmed by F. Roberts.  

Computer Ref:  Plant Data 210.

Have plant specimen.

Last edit 9/23/02.


                                               May Photo