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Fresh Clips: Elder Taxonomy

By The Herb Companion staff
October/November 2009
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Sambucus nigra

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In the our edler profile “Grow, Cook, Heal with Elder,” you will notice two elder species: Sambucus canadensis and S. nigra. When classifying the two types of the elder plant as such, we are adhering to the “Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project” version of elder taxonomy. This endeavor by London’s Natural History Museum is named for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who established the consistent binomial naming system of plant classification.  

However, certain botanists use a different series of names for the types of elder plants, which was created in 1994 when Richard Bolli revised the Sambucus taxonomy. His “Revision of the Genus Sambucus” eliminated six species of elder, lumping them instead as subspecies of the S. nigra species. One of the species lumped into S. nigra as a subspecies was S. canadensis.

Not all experts agree on which taxonomy to use. Perhaps the best example of the split can be found among two government databases. Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) uses Bolli taxonomy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) continues to use the Linnaean taxonomy. We used the Linnaean naming system for ease of reading.

You can identify the taxonomist by the abbreviations following the scientific names. According to Bolli taxonomy, the Linnaean S. canadensis L. becomes S. nigra ssp. canadensis (L.) R. Bolli. (The “L.” is for Carl Linnaeus; the “R. Bolli” for Richard Bolli.) The Linnaean S. nigra L. thus becomes S. nigra ssp. nigra L. according to the Bolli taxonomy.

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