Hello fellow readers! I've got a special native species in store for you today; Sambucus caerulea, also called Blue Elder or Blue Elderberry. Maybe you've heard of Elder berry syrup, wine or Elder flower water? Did you ever think that you could make these products all on your own by harvesting the fruits of a near by tree? Well, you can! Isn't life grand? All you have to do is locate one of these beauties and wait for the right season to arrive. To start, you should know that this species of blue Elder berry (there are a few others*) like to live east of the Cascade Mountains, from southern B.C to western Montana and south to California and New Mexico. They love the rich soils of a valley or stream bank. In B.C they like to establish themselves somewhere that is drier and more open rather than in the forest. The tree itself is a deciduous shrub growing up to 20 feet in height. The leaves are lance shaped and about 2 to five inches long, an unassuming plant for sure!
HIstorically, Sambucus caerulea berries were cultivated by many indigenous groups to make a jam-like product. Sometimes the berries and twigs were used to dye stems for basketry. The bark of the Elder tree was important in the construction of arrow shafts and musical instruments for ceremonies. Medicinally, Elder flower syrup is an amazing formula for colds, flu and upper respiratory infections. Both the flowers and the berries made in to a tea will induce sweating and break a fever. A very powerful plant!
So, this coming September, get your baskets ready and pick yourself some Elder berries! They will be out until October and are dark blue with a whitish, wax coating, almost like grapes. I should also mention that the plant is toxic when ingested, EXCEPT for the berries** and flowers. How can that be?! Nature is so tricky! You should also remember where your tree is so you can go back in the spring and collect the beautiful creamy-white flowers.
If you want to make a delicious herbal cold remedy that dates back centuries, follow this recipe by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar:
1 cup fresh elderberries (1/2 if dried, but make sure it is from a reliable source)
3 cups of water
1 cup of your local honey
1. Place the berries in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer over low hear for 30 to 45 minutes.
2. Smash the berries. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and add 1 cup of honey, or adjust to taste.
3. Bottle the syrup and store in the refrigerator, where it will keep for 2 to 3 months.
CAUTION: Use only blue elderberries; the red ones are potentially toxic if eaten in large quantities. Never eat elder berries that haven't been cooked first.
*There are a few other species of Elder that are common in the PNW. One is a european species with blue-purple berries (Sambucus nigra), which is also medicinal. Another is the ubiquitous Red Elderberry shrub (Sambucus racemosa), whose bright red berries can be poisonous in large doses (although I have heard that they are also highly medicinal....). In this article, I am specifically talking about Sambucus caerulea, our native Blue Elder shrub with waxy blue berries, however Sambucus nigra, the european species that also grows in our area can be substituted.
**When consuming the berries, make sure never eat the seeds. Always cook and strain the berries as they can also be toxic.