Sambucus—Intercultural exchange and evolution


  • Daniel Frank Austin Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


Elderberry, plants, musical instrument, military device, sailing vessel, liquor, etymology, historical records


The plant Sambucus, called elder or elder-berry in English, has been associated with major and minor deities longer than history records. In contrast to gods and goddesses, other applications of sambucus are made in more secular ways. Sambucus and its variants have been applied to five entities—plants, a musical instrument (sambuce, שׂבּבָא), a military device (sambuca, σαμβύκ), a sailing vessel (sambuq, sanbuq, زنبق), and a liquor (sambuca, zammut). Each of these connotations is separated, some slightly and others markedly, from the others by fragmented historical records. While the most ancient application known is for the musical instrument, the designation of a plant is not much, if any, younger. The war machine is almost the same age as the plant tradition. Considerably more recent are the labels of a ship and alcoholic drink. This synopsis puts these records together to reveal a history of intercultural exchange and the evolution of terminology.

Author Biography

Daniel Frank Austin, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Research Associate, ASDM; Adjunct Professor, Univ. of Arizona; Emeritus Professor, Florida Atlantic University




How to Cite

Austin, D. F. (2012). Sambucus—Intercultural exchange and evolution. Ethnobotany Research and Applications, 10, 213–233. Retrieved from