The Backyard Farmacista

April 9, 2013 / Local Interest

You can’t take more than a few steps outside the door of any old stone farmhouse in the Umbrian countryside without running into a Sambucus Nigra elder bush, known in Italian as the “sambuco”.

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I once thought that its omnipresence was simply because these towering shrubs (which sometimes grow into small trees) with their dark green, elongated leaves, flat-topped clusters of white spring blossoms, and heavily drooping bunches of deep purple berries which ripen in summer, were native to these hills.

Though that is true (indeed, Pliny mentions Sambucus in his writings), it’s also true that local farming families have for centuries (if not millenia) cultivated and conserved these precious plants for their numerous medicinal uses.

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Perhaps the best known part of the elder plant is its berries. Elderberry syrup has been used for centuries to boost the immune system, guarding against colds, flu, and bacterial and viral infections. Modern science has confirmed the effectiveness of this “folk” medicine, as the purple-black berries have been found to be high in antioxidants and can also lower cholesterol, improve vision, and improve heart health.

Elderflowers were also used to make Elder Flower Water, used as an astringent and purifier for the skin and to treat inflammation of the eyes, and Elder Flower Tea, a mild laxative. The dried flowers were also heated in a mixture of olive oil and lard until crisp, and the fat was then strained and used as an ointment for dressing wounds, burns, and chapped skin.

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A similar ointment could be made from heating the green leaves of the elder in olive oil and lard and then straining; the result was an effective domestic remedy for bruises, sprains, and hemorrhoids. A much more simple use was as a DIY insect repellent…simply rubbing the bruised green leaves against the skin or tucking them under your hat was said to keep pesky insects away, as was dabbing an infusion made from the green leaves on one’s skin.

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Sadly, very few use the natural healing properties of the sambuca’s many parts any longer; modern country families simply drive to the pharmacy when they find themselves with a rash or flu. Years ago, however, when the roads to town were dirt tracks and the transportation was solely by foot (or, for the lucky, donkey), the contadini would head instead to the apothecary in their backyard: the humble yet wise Dottor Sambuco.

Rebecca Winke

by Rebecca Winke

Owner of Brigolante Apartments, a restored 16th century stone farmhouse / guesthouse in the heart of Umbria near Assisi, and blogger of life in Umbria. For tips and insider information about visiting Umbria, download her Umbria Slow App and see her writings on her personal website!

19 Responses to “The Backyard Farmacista”

  1. Colleen Simpson

    Oh how I enjoyed this one Rebecca! My great grandmother, Lucy Standing Bear, was a Native American healer and elderberries were a staple in our family in the rural Ozark Mountains of Missouri. We certainly have lost much of the wisdom of our “elders” to use a pun, by rushing to the farmacia or in the U.S., the local health foods store for our remedies. Grazie mille!

  2. Linda Boccia

    That was an interesting account of the elderberry bush. I presume that it is not related to the delicious “sambuca” liquore that many of us enjoy. However, I am going to ask the obvious…is sambucus the bush from which “sambuca” is made? Then it would have everything, medicinal AND occasional delicious beverage qualities. Grazie!

  3. Linda Boccia

    I have a P.S. to note that in Washington State, where I grew up in Seattle, elderberries were sought not only for making syrups for foods, they were also used to make elderberry wine. My family are Norwegian (mostly) and we always had elderberry syrup and it was a staple for most Scandinavians. It is widely grown worldwide and often used for medicinal purposes. It’s so sad that probably an herbal remedy is available to cure literally ALL of our disease and aliments, but humans keep destroying rain forests and other places to clear the land for cattle and home building. We must relearn the conservation that previous generations knew and respected.

  4. Ginny Siggia

    Every summer I plant basil, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, and tarragon (at the minimum), and last year discovered catmint (which my cat adores, grinding her face into the blossoms whenever she escapes my vigilant care; I grind my own face into the lavender). The growing season I’m in (mid-New England) is limited so year-round plants aren’t possible except indoors, and that’s not feasible without adequate light and space. I’m not as well-versed as I’d like to be in the specific healing powers of herbs, but the smell is healing in itself. My niece (who lives in the Mojave Desert area in California) has hedges of rosemary, so dense they need to be sheared and above my waist in height. I simply drape myself on top and inhale. Yes, I got sappy. Big deal. I found out quite by accident that tarragon plus lemon balm makes a lovely blend of fragrances. The house smells wonderful as all of these herbs dry out. Who needs “fresh linen” room spray??

  5. Ginny Siggia

    A comment about elderberries. In 8th grade we were reading about Colonial American cooking. I bravely undertook the challenge to make cornmeal mush and elderberry jam. Cut me some slack; this was 8th grade and I was more eager than skilled at cooking. The mush was inedible. The jam … I do NOT remember what possessed me to do this, but I used my mother’s Kitchen-Aid mixer to prepare the jam. You know where this is going. 45 years and three owners later, the house still shows faint but beautiful purple/red stains on the countertops, white cupboards, white hot water tank, white stove, and … fortunately the linoleum is so scuffed that no one knows what color it is supposed to be. (I’m only half-kidding!)

  6. Angela Finch

    Loved the note and equally the responses. The berries also look good in a vase of cut flowers.


  7. Colleen Simpson

    Linda: It is indeed the delicious Sambuca that we love! If you are thinking of “Sambuca Molinari”, the old fashioned Italian elderberry liquor, produced by the famous Molinari family in central Italy. Add a coffee bean to your glass to enhance the flavor.

  8. gerald anders

    wonder if it is the same plant that is common in the US, particularly the NE Also relation to the liquor: Sambuca or to Elderberry wine?

  9. Linda Boccia

    Great! Let’s toast with CIN CIN and a glass of Molinari Sambuca!! Thank you for your info and yes, we always put a coffee bean in our sambuca. Very Italian and I am married to a Roman, born there, yet grew up in Piemonte and they too use a coffee bean.

  10. Duncan Venn

    In UK it is the elder flowers that are most prized. You can put them in boiling water, with lemon, leave them overnight, strain and then add sugar to make elderflower cordial, picked at the right moment they make an excellent elderflower champagne and if you’re feeling really decadent you can make fritters by dipping the florets in a simple batter and then frying them to make a fizzy delicacy. Recipes widely available on the net. Enjoy!

  11. Mairin O'Mahony

    Many, many years ago when I was still living in London I had a boyfriend who made elderberry wine. He gave me some with instructions to store it on its side in a dark space. I dutifully stashed it under my bed. Well, you can guess what happened! My mother was NOT well pleased with resulting stains on the carpet, the walls, the furniture OR the explosion of glass. Nowadays I stick to Sambuca.

  12. When I get back to Australia(I’m in Venice until mid-May), I’m going to see if this will grow where I live. You have me all enthused!

    PS What a cool end of winter, beginning of spring we’ve been having. Brrr. Bring on the Sambucca. :-)

  13. A multi-use shrub indeed! My horticulture professors warned against ingesting the berries raw (esp. children), and for those with skin allergies to take care if brushing the skin with the leaves intended as an insect repellent.

  14. Oh my goodness – I am SO enjoying all the comments AND your article, Miss Rebecca. I also had to have a Sambucca! Thank you.


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