Sandy’s Garden ... Sambucus and Sambuca

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Sambucus is the pukka botanical name for the tree we usually call the ‘common elder’.

Sambuca is an Italian liqueur.

So does that mean that the common name for sambuca is elderberry wine?

Well, gentle reader, you could try to convince your friends that the pukka oenological name for the home-made elderberry wine that you are offering them is sambuca: but you would be attempting to deceive them, for what we know as sambuca is, in fact, an Italian anise-flavoured, usually colourless, liqueur, most often drunk with coffee after a meal. The most common variety is usually called white sambuca to distinguish it from the far less common black sambuca … which is actually very dark blue … or red sambuca. However, sambuca does contain elderflowers … not berries … in addition to a selection of oils … principally star anise and fennel … these ingredients being added to pure alcohol before the mixture is diluted to something of the order of 43% alcohol by volume – much the same as so-called ‘export strength’ gin.

The origin of the name sambuca is disputed, the Italian makers claiming that it comes from the Arabic word ‘zammut,’ a drink brought from the Orient during the Middle Ages by ships calling at the port of Civitavecchia, which is the port for Rome. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, has no doubt that sambuca comes from the same root as Sambucus.

So what is there to be said about Sambucus? Well, there are a number of species of this small shrub, a shrub having several shoots rising from the roots while a tree has a single trunk. They are deciduous … lose their leaves during the winter … with different species carrying differently-coloured leaves. The species in which we are interested is Sambucus nigra …nigra meaning ‘black’ and referring not to the leaves but to the berries … and is the species usually called the common elder. Native to much of Europe, north Africa and south-west Asia, it is happy to grow in a variety of soils, including clay, and will spread, in time, to something of the order of 3 metres … say, 10 feet in old money … and reach a height of about 6 metres … say, 20 feet. The most attractive variety to the gardener is probably ‘Aurea’ which, as its name implies, carries beautiful golden foliage before the small white flowers and then the tiny black berries appear. This variety, like any variety with yellow leaves, really needs to be planted in full sun to reach its full glorious potential. It doesn’t need a lot of care although it’s a good idea to keep an eye open for blackfly and red spider mite and to treat any infestation as soon as it is spotted. If the tree threatens to grow too large for its site, it will tolerate quite hard pruning in the autumn.

The flowers of the common elder are used to produce elderflower wine, elderflower cordial and elderflower syrup, this last being essentially a concentrated version of the cordial which is diluted with water before being drunk. Although the ripe fruits of the common elder are edible, I don’t recommend it; they are best eaten cooked, in fruit pies and relishes. And these berries have been used to make wine for, in all probability, thousands of years. Rich and full of flavour at its best, elderberry wine is delicious on its own and can be used to add flavour and complexity to homemade grape wines, which are all-too-often rather thin. Indeed, it is not unknown for rogue commercial winemakers to add elderberry wine to their poor quality products to make them appear better than they are. Still, no matter how delicious your elderberry wine is, it is not sambuca and, frankly does not go so well with after-dinner coffee.