Mother Nature Monday: The Elderberry
These days there is a particular focus on plants that are well know as immunity boosters and anti-viral. The Elderberry (Sambucus) is one of those special plants. It is sometimes called American Elder. The elderberry is a shrub that grows big, up to 13 feet high! The stem has corky bumps along and there is a spongy white pith inside the twigs and branches. Their branches look somewhat like a tropical fern or a big feather. They tend to grow in damp ditches along road sides, but surprise us by popping up in unexpected places, like the double loop trail in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. If you look carefully, you will see a single specimen on the lower right loop on the right-hand side.
In the late spring and early summer, the elderberry flowers appear on the Sambucus Canadensis. They are tiny, branched, snow-white, lacy rounded clusters (called panicles) of flowers. Each panicle is about the size of a tea saucer. The famous juicy purple-black to black berries appear toward the second half of the summer and early Fall.
This is the most important part of this blog. There is a second common elderberry species that has red flowers in the early spring and produces berries in late May and early June. It is called the Mountain Red Elder (Sambucus microbotrys). This is the one you will find along the Joyce Kilmer trail. Do not mistake the red elderberry for the white one. The red flowers are pyramid-shaped and the berries are more reddish and grow in roundish clusters vs the flat flowers of the white elderberry. Also, if you break the stems, the pith is brown, not snow white. These berries and flowers will make you sick. How do I know this? I made that mistake and thankfully only ingested a few berries. This is not something you want to experience! Native Americans allegedly used to carefully remove each seed from each tiny berry before using the berries for medicine
Even fruit from the white elderberries needs to be processed first, not eaten raw. Cooking or drying the berries makes them safe to use. Before picking the elderberries, you can safely taste one or two of the tiny, round berries for sweetness. They vary. If it is the day after a hard rain, the berries suck up the moisture and although they are bigger, the sugar in the berry is more diluted. Remember that elderberries are not supposed to be really sweet. To make things like elderberry wine or syrup or jam, you must add a sweetener to the mix.
Many older herbals recommend using the leaves, roots or bark medicinally. Don’t. they are poisonous. They contain a bitter alkaloid and glycoside that may change into cyanide. It’s best to focus on the berries and the flowers, both which can be safely used. The berries are a highly valued source of food for wildlife and are high in vitamin C. Always keep in mind that just because bears and birds like a particular berry that does not mean that it is safe or healthy for us to eat.
Sambucus comes from the Greek word “sambuke,” a musical instrument made of elder wood, whose music was believed to heal the spirit. The common name of Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon “Ellen”, meaning fire-kindler, because of the dry stems filled with a burnable pith. Legend says that elderberry, if gathered on the last day of April, and put up over the windows and doors of houses, would ward off witches. Like many legends, there is a conflicting story that says that witches liked to gather under elderberries!
It is fascinating to study the way so many of our native plants were traditionally used as medicines. Many are still used today, while others have dropped by the wayside as treatments for various illnesses. Learning about the uses of the many plants along a trail makes a walk in the woods even more interesting and fun. As with mushrooms, always check a number of sources before experimenting to make sure you have identified the plants correctly.