San Francisco Landmark Tree: Sambucus Mexicana
a.k.a Mexican or Blue Elderberry
Location: Bernal Heights Natural Area
Sambucus mexicana is a subspecies of the very well-known Sambucus nigra, commonly known as Elder or Elderberry, from the Adoxaceae family. This deciduous tree is native to the Western United States and Northern Mexico and is generally found in areas below 3,000 feet. The taxonomy of S. mexicana is not fully agreed upon so it is also referred to as S. cerulea. It is said to have been introduced to California by Theodore Payne, an English horticulturalist.
This tree can be identified by its pinnate leaves with 5-9 leaflets arranged oppositely. During the spring months they form butter yellow flowers which transform into glossy blue or black rounded fruits that grow in big clusters in autumn. One distinguishable feature of this tree from the other Sambucus species is the grayish-white powder that coats its berries. S. Mexicana typically grows from 10-30 feet tall and can survive in any kind of environment, though it prefers partial shade to full sun and moist soil. One can take hardwood cuttings while the tree is dormant (in the fall), plant outside, an propagate a new tree. Once established these trees are fairly drought tolerant.
Sambucus is known for its uses in traditional medicine. Time and time again it has been referred as the “medicine chest of the country people” due to its wide range of health benefits. The flowers, leaves, and berries can be harvested and dried to make teas, tinctures, and syrups. The flowers are rich in Vitamin C, mucilage and flavonoids whereas the berries are rich in iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and antioxidant flavonoids. Elderberry syrup, made from the berries, is a necessity in your pantry when cold and flu season arrives. It is used to reduce the onset of cold and flu illnesses by inhibiting the replication of the virus and thus diminishing the flu symptoms. It is important to note that it is not advised for the berries to be eaten raw, and it is important to consult your primary care physician to see if elderberry products are something that you can benefit from.
Elderflowers have great anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties. Flowers can be made into a tea to reduce inflammation of the sinuses and lessen the symptoms of allergies. Additionally, the leaves of the trees, when crushed, give off a foul odor that one can extract and use as an insecticide in your garden to ward off aphids and other pests.
Throughout history, Sambucus nigra has played an important role in the homes of many communities across the world. The Greeks would even use the hardwood of Sambucus trees to make musical instruments creating the most beautiful of melodies. It is a great addition to anyone's garden or for restoration projects. There are many types of wildlife that enjoy the Sambucus trees as much as we do! Native birds love to feast on its ripe berries and grazing animals such as deer, nibble on the leaves and bark. The only question that remains is why not plant a Sambucus?