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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.