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Gillian's Fieldwork Notes: Elderberry: Another Roadside Attraction

(photo: the black elderberry shrub) 

What plant can be made into a musical instrument, fermented into wine, whittled into weaving needles, used in facial washes, cooked for jelly or pie, and formulated into medicine?

While most oldtimers know about the many uses of Elderberry (Sambucus species), many people are unfamiliar with this spring bloomer and all its uses.

If you haven't been properly introduced, the tree-like shrub known as Blue, Black or Red Elderberry has long lance-shaped leaves growing in pairs of 2 to 4, with one leaf at the tip.  

Some may confuse it with Mountain Ash, whose leaves are smaller and more rounded at the tips, growing in pairs of 7 and up to 13 pairs.  The easiest way to differentiate if you're not sure is to get an Elder and an Ash side by side to see the difference; once you figure it out, it'll be easier from a distance.

May is the time for Elder's flowers to appear, thanks to April showers. The blossoms are a lovely cream colour, tiny (1/2 inch), 5 petaled and grow in large, dense clusters.  You'll see them on the side of our roads and elsewhere reaching heights of about 10 - 15 feet, though it can get up to 25 feet, and if you're walking, you'll smell Elder's fragrance, the description of which varies in the literature from sweet to decide.

Every spring I'm asked: which one, which one? The red, black or the blue?

And every spring, I have to dust the cobwebs off of my winter brain, go through my books and decipher the many differing opinions on this topic. Well, the experts still don't have consensus. Some of the literature says avoid them completely.

Most authors agree that the blue or black varieties are safe, if prepared properly.

Unfortunately, Elder (any colour) contains a toxic substance that is related to cyanide (called hydrocyanide). Coupled with other alkaloids, consuming Elder can cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. For some, any amount is too much. For others, it is only the consumption of a large amount that should be avoided.

While care should be taken, it is notable that Elder has been cultivated for food use since prehistoric times. "Fossilized" red elderberries have been found in archeological sites dating back hundreds of years, and this same species (Sambucus racemosa) served an important role in the diet of North American coastal peoples. 

Dr. James Duke, retired "herbal laureate" with the U.S. Drug Administration gives one species of Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) a safety rating of 3, which for him, means it is " safer than coffee", and we all know how coffee is revered.  Of course, one should always discontinue use of any food or herb should any undesirable or unusual symptoms arise from their consumption.

If you've ever had Elderberry wine or brandy or jelly, and you liked the taste, you'll want to know how to prepare it properly to make your own yummy Elder things.

First, if you're lucky enough to have a choice, choose the blue or black elderberry, since they have a lower concentration of toxins.  The red berries are still often used, however. Regardless of your selection, take care to cook the Elder thoroughly. Use the flowers and berries; the seeds, leaves, stems, bark and roots have a higher concentration of toxic substances.

The berries are packed full of Vitamins A, B and C, and mineral iron, calcium and potassium.


To make a delicious and nutritious jelly, cook the ripe berries (they arrive, usually, in July or August) as you would any berry, but be sure to strain them through cheesecloth to remove the seeds and stems.  Simply use a Certo or Pomona's Pectin recipe, and where it calls for blueberries or blackberries, just swap in the Elderberries.

Some folks make syrup with the pulp too - simply add water to make a tasty and good-for-you juice. 

The berries freeze well if you want to cook them later on in the season, but be sure to mark the bag well to avoid any problems with random freezer nibblers. Again, thorough cooking is crucial for the Elderberries while frozen blueberries are a safe treat. 

When it comes to Elderberry wine, I must confess that I have occupied the role  only of the happy consumer. From hanging around berry wine kitchens, I have heard that you just take a blackberry or rhubarb wine recipe and substitute your cooked Elderberry. Elderberry brandy, by contrast, is made by simply infusing the berries in brandy and straining it after 2 weeks; this can be sipped as a tasty after-dinner digestive.

The Elderberry flowers are safe, and they are used for a wide variety of purposes.

Elderflower water is a lovely facial toner. In fact, it has a well established reputation as a beautification agent. According to the lore of old, Elderflower water fades freckles and diminishes blemishes.

I include dried Elderflowers in my herbal facial scrub, along with oatmeal, cornmeal, spearmint, and French clay.

It makes a nice addition to facial steam waters; used in this manner, it relieves dry and irritated skin. You can brew Elder flower tea and use that as a hair rise to reduce brittleness.

The flowers are also edible.

Here's a recipe from one of my fave herbals, Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield (she says cooked this way, they taste like fried clams! who would have thunk)

~Elder Fritters~

Ingredients: 1 c. flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 beaten eggs, 1 c. milk, 2 tblsp. melted butter, 4 c. elder flowers in clusters, oil for frying

Mix dry ingredients together in one bowl, and in another, blend eggs, milk, and butter into a batter.  Dip the flower clusters in egg batter, then coat them with the flour mixture.  Fry them in hot oil until golden brown, and drain on a paper towel. Serve with honey or maple syrup (serves 2-4).

Gather the flowers as they are beginning to bud, from mid-May to July.

To have them on hand for tea or facials, dry the flowers in their clusters, loosely arranged in open paper bags in a warm, dark place. Shelf life is limited to 6 months or so; use them for cosmetic purposes if they get old.

Medicinally, Elderberry runs the gamut, from the treatment of fevers, colds, bronchitis, respiratory viruses, skin ailments, digestive problems, to rheumatism and strained nerves.

In old pharmacopoeias, Elder treated 70 different ailments, including the plague, blindness and toothaches.

Today, folk herbalists mainly use Elderflower in teas (combined with mint and yarrow) to induce sweating in dry fevers, and to loosen respiratory mucus and to ease bronchitis (combined with coltsfoot).  The tea is also often used in eye washes in cases of conjunctivitis or tired, puffy eyes due to allergies.  (Infuse 2 tsp. of dried elderflower per cup of boiled water for 5 minutes; allow to cool).

There has been a substantial amount of research into the anti-viral properties of Elderberries.  Studies have shown that a specifically derived extract of the S. nigra berries inhibit the enzyme responsible for both Type A and B influenza virus from invading healthy cells.  You will find these extracts in most health food stores.

Elder has as one of its folk names, the "Tree of Music" since wind instruments such as whistles and recorders have been made from Elder for centuries by many traditional cultures ranging from Africa to Alaska.

The botanical name Sambucus comes from sambuke, which is a Greek instrument made from the hollow stem.  If you want to try this at home, make sure you find a way to totally remove the pith (the inside part of the stem), and discard it...some even suggest boiling the cleaned stem before use to be safe.

Ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner tells us that the Straits Salish people made pipe stems and the Nuxalk made pipe bowls using Red Elder, while the Stl'atl'imx of the Interior made blowguns (similar to a pea shooter) from the stems.

The shrub can also be pressed into service as an insecticide. Make a tea with the leaves and spray your plants to deter aphids. However, work with the leaves carefully and then mark the spray bottle very clearly, and keep everything out of reach of children.

For woodworking, the green wood is said to be excellent for carving, and the dry wood is as hard as ebony, ideal for making pegs and cogs for machinery.  The berries also make a great plant dye.

Cultivating Elderberry shrubs is not for the faint of heart. There are superstitious tales of Elder repelling nasty spirits, lightning, and even witches (only bad ones hopefully), though there are others that say elder is bad luck and taboo near the take your pick! 

If you decide that you want an elder bush/tree by your home, try taking cuttings from local ones, or do a root division if it's practical.  Some plant nurseries also have it available.  You'll find that the birds and the bees will love you for your Elder, and when harvesting, keep them in mind by only picking off of the bottom branches and leaving the tops for critter food and habitat.  As always, remember to avoid harvesting from those growing by the sides of the roads and near largescale electrical service lines.

(photo: making elderberry syrup)