By Marilyn Wightman
- Genus ELDER – 35 species
- Genus LONICERA – 180 species
- Genus VIBURNUM – 150 species
- Genus SYMPHORICARPOS
Caprifoliaceae is a diverse family of mainly trees, climbers and shrubs. The popularity of the herbal members of this group is due to their fragrant flowers, which are bee attractants. They are often deciduous, as many come from cold climates and are used to snow and frosts. Most also have bright–coloured berries that encourage the birds to participate in ready feasts, which ensures the next generation of plants is spread far and wide.
There are three main herbal genera in Caprifoliaceae that readily grow in New Zealand. The most useful and familiar for herb people is Elder (Sambucus sp.), which is a genus of 35 species. There are five varieties grown in New Zealand – Sambucus nigra (common elder), Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’ (golden elder), Sambucus nigra ‘Marginata’ (variegated elder), Sambucus nigra f. laciniata (fern leafed elder) and Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple’ (purple elder). The elders thrive in this country, as they are common in temperate climates. All these elders are derived from the European elder. The shrubby trees can get over 4 metres high. They can be trimmed to retain a more uniform shape for the home garden. The leaves are pinnate and have toothed leaflets.
While sambucus is Greek for ‘a musical pipe’, nigra is Latin for ‘black’. The hollow tubes of the stalks were once used as musical flutes, while the ‘black’ pertains to the dark purple, almost black, colouring of the berries that flourish in autumn.
As the berry is a bird attractant, common or green elder is now banned by some regional councils as being a potential hazard plant. Elders do not flourish on the forest floor as they resent shading and crowding out by surrounding trees, which hardly makes them a danger to native forest areas. They are recognised in late spring and early summer by their cheerful, flat and creamy flower heads. These grow in wasteland on roadsides.
All parts of the elder are used medicinally – leaves, bark, flowers, fruit and pips. On the American continent elder varieties – blue and red – are named for the colour of the berries. These varieties are ultra cold hardy and can take months of snow cover and low temperatures. The North American first nation people had many uses for their native elders (Sambucus canadensis).
The second genus of Caprifoliaceae is the Lonicera genus. Lonicera, like Sambucus, has gained a weedy reputation by the ever–vigilant Forest & Bird Association. While many people happily clip their Lonicera nitida hedge into a neat and formal shape, they are generally unaware that it is a member of the honeysuckle genus. Lonicera japonica is the honeysuckle with the bad reputation in New Zealand. It is just one of 180 species in this group. With the sweetly fragrant flower, honeysuckle could be forgiven for its rampantly wandering habit. Lonicera caprifolium (Dutch honeysuckle) and Lonicera periclymenum (woodbine) are recognised as being medicinal. Lonicera japonica has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine.
Winter honeysuckle is an evergreen climber and is easy to cultivate, as the branches become woody and do not have fast-growing tentacles. It is easy to control in the home garden and can be trimmed to shape. In a perfume-bereft winter garden, this sweetly scented herb can be appreciated. It, too, has been used in Chinese medicine.
Viburnum is the third herbal genus in Caprifoliaceae. Of the 150 species in this genus, many have fragrant flowers and most have berries. While the flowers are all shades of white with green tonings to cream and pink hues, the berries are more diverse in their colour range. Many have red berries to bring the birds and others have black, yellow or bright blue fruit.
There are two prominent herbal viburnums, both of which have a chemical that is medicinally useful. Guelder rose, or cramp bark, is Viburnum opulus and it’s used medicinally for uterine conditions in women. This viburnum has the round flower head that gives many viburnums the name ‘snowball tree&esquo;. The second medicinal plant is Viburnum prunifolium, commonly called blackhaw or stagbush. This viburnum has cymes, the other common flower head shape of this genus.
In the Manawatu two viburnums that are popular and flourish are Viburnum burkwoodii and Viburnum davidii. The first flowers in late spring and has attractive pink/white flower heads that are sweetly fragrant. The second is a low shrub that grows well in dark places so it makes an ideal under-planting shrub that fills a space. The female variety has dramatic blue berries that are produced prolifically in autumn. It has tough, leathery, evergreen leaves.
Not so well known in New Zealand is the fourth genus of Caprifoliaceae that has herbal use. The Symphoricarpos genus is commonly known as the snowberry family. These are low shrubs mainly out of fashion now and perhaps to be found in older gardens. Being deciduous the modern gardener tends to snub those plants that they consider untidily lose their leaves. It was grown as an ornamental, as the pure white berries make an attractive show in winter on the bare twigs.
Again, like the viburnums, these shrubs are used for uterine and gastric conditions.
HerbNews – Summer 2012–13