Sambucus is a small genus of shrubs and perennials found primarily in temperate and subtropical forested areas of Europe, Asia, and North, Central, and South America. Elderberries are members of the Adoxaceae (the moschatel family), though older literature will indicate Caprifoliaceae (the honeysuckle family). However, repeated phylogenetic analyses have confirmed that Adoxaceae is the appropriate home for Sambucus. Like the taunt by the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail suggests (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!“), elderberries have a distinctive odour. The compounds responsible for the odd, sometimes foetid aroma exists in leaf, stem and root tissues, as well as the fruits. A similar chemistry is found in species of Adoxa and Viburnum, the other two genera in Adoxaceae.
While Sambucus adnata is native to forests, streamsides, mountain slopes, and alpine grasslands, it is especially common in disturbed areas along roadsides and field-edges across the Himalayan region into the mountains of western China. Unlike the more familiar cultivated elders, some of which can become arborescent, Sambucus adnata is a suckering, colony-forming perennial or subshrub; plants sometimes develop a short scaffold of woody basal branches below the herbaceous shoots. The shoots are conspicuously marked with longitudinal striations, but lack obvious lenticels—the corky spots on the stems responsible for allowing gas exchange—that are characteristic of other elders. Plants grow to 2m (6 ft.) or more with elegantly relaxed compound leaves that radiate out from the sturdy stems and the attractive flower heads are flat topped—the flowers reddish in bud and opening pink or white. The fruits of this species are orange to red (the similar-looking, larger-flowered Sambucus ebulus from Europe has black fruit) and are normally taken by birds.