Saturday, October 3, 2015


A Common Elderberry in bloom
     A common but under appreciated multi-stemmed shrub, Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) usually ranges from 4-12' in height. It tends to grow along woodland edges, particularly where it is moist. Another local species, Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), is more of a mountain species, but can be found along the Potomac River. Throughout the ages, members of the Sambucus Genus have been used for a variety of different reasons where ever they grow, and North America is no different.

Elderberry flowers and leaves
      Numerous Native American Indian tribes made use of Elderberry according to ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman. The Chippewa, among others, foraged for the fruits. The Algonquian used the bark as a laxative and other parts to induce vomiting. The Houma, Delaware, Oklahoma, Rappahanocks, and Cherokee made a poultice from Elders to treat wounds. The Cherokee also used it to treat rheumatism, burns, boils, and fevers, as well as to make wine. The Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) used it to treat headaches, cuts, stomach ailments, fevers, venereal disease, mumps, and liver troubles. The Dakota, Omaha, and Ponca all made a beverage from the blossoms and fruits. It seems that wherever it grew, the native people made use of it.

Close-up of Elderberry flowers

     During the Civil War, Confederate Dr. Francis Porcher was tasked with finding alternatives to goods and medicines that were no longer available due to war blockades and report on them in a book he was ordered to write. He found a wealth of uses for Elderberry, not only those by the indigenous tribes, but from the European Elderberries. He recorded its use as a laxative, to treat syphilis, rheumatism, and for wine. He wrote: "a decoction made by pouring boiling water over leaves, flowers, or berries is recommended as a wash for wounds to prevent injury from flies." Some people still use the crushed leaves to repel flies.

Ripe Elderberries, each the size of a BB

     Modern day forager extraordinaire Samuel Thayer describes numerous ways to eat Elderberry in his books. He does however note that some people get nauseous from consuming the fruits, especially raw, but believes it due to an intolerance in some people to the actual seeds. He includes preparation techniques for Elderberry wine, jellies, fritters, pies, Elder Blow tea from the flowers, and as a flour additive. He also notes that many believe that Elderberry juice can shorten the duration of flu and viral infections, something worth exploring (and used in a Walking Dead episode).

The fruit clusters can be fairly large, at least before the birds get to them.

     The stems hollow out easily. The pith easily comes out. This has led to their use as musical pipe instruments, pan pipes, spiles for tapping maple sap, blow guns for Southern indigenous tribes, as well as pop guns and pea shooters by kids. Some of these had to be made with caution however since the leaves and stems are poisonous. If not dried well, sticking the stems in mouths can, and has, resulted in poisonings. Several cavity nesting bees, such as mason and little carpenter bees, often use the hollow stems to raise their young. Woodpeckers and other birds sometimes figure this out and drill them out.

Mason Bee nests drilled into by woodpeckers on an Elderberry

     Other animals also make use of this plant as well. It serves as a host plant for 42 caterpillar species who feed on it, while 120 bird species have been documented feeding on the fruits. Deer are not fond of the leaves however, perhaps making it more valuable as a deer resistant planting, as if its blooms, carefree nature, and wildlife value were not enough. All in all, this shrub has a lot going for it, and for the many creatures that depend on it.  

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