My Young Elder

Since the Berkeley Ecology Center has seen fit to disappear the archive of columns that Joe Eaton and I wrote for the late great magazine Terrain way back when, I’m taking the liberty of republishing some of them here.

I planted a blue elderberry in the back of the yard some years ago, up against the fence, and then ignored it. Fortunately that’s a good strategy. Now it’s producing lots of berries to atone for its rambling, floppy habits.

I give it a serious haircut most winters, shape it a little, but I have no illusions that it’s going to take a disciplined form. That’s OK; I love the species in the wild, where half the fun is seeing what changes it can ring on the theme of Loose Arching Tall Shrub.

Sometimes it actually becomes a tree. I know some with respectable trunks; it takes a second look to recognize them. The first time I did, I found a Pacific Slope flycatcher glaring back at me from a nest in a branch crook—someone else thought it was a good enough tree too.

One odd thing about elderberries is the contradictory data about them. I’ve heard that they’re toxic;
that just the red ones are toxic;
that they’re delicious and by the way, here are five recipes for them;
that either the red or the blue are toxic to everyone or toxic to only certain people, either always (especially the red ones) or only when raw;
that the unripe blue ones are toxic; that only the blue ones are traditional food;
that the red ones are traditional food too;
that the leaves, stems, and other plant parts are toxic and “children have been made ill by using the stems as peashooters”;
that indigenous Californians have traditionally used the stems for flutes;
that it’s poisonous and that it’s good for what ails you; that it’ll give you a bellyache and that it’ll cure a bellyache.

I speculate that what’s going on here is that some people are susceptible in various ways to a compound in the plant—apparently there are plenty of suspects, like some lectins. (Lectins are proteins; they’re various, ubiquitous, and often poorly understood. Hocus-pocus material, and also something to watch with interest as research proceeds.)

Whatever causes the problem, it can be neutralized by drying or cooking, so elderberry flowers for tea and elderberries for pie are often dried and then reconstituted before use. Those kids being poisoned by their peashooters would be better off if they dried the sticks before using them—which is what the Miwok do for their flutes.

These traditional flutes are made from elderberry twigs, which are already hollow, or pithy and easy to hollow out. They cut them green and let them dry; one writer says they burned out fingering holes with a hot coal at random, so no two flutes had the same scale. If so, that would make for some interesting compositions.

Californians traditionally make clappersticks out of elderberry branches too. With both the wind and the rhythm sections accounted for, some people call it the music tree. For all these and for arrow wood, elderberry plants were coppiced to produce straight stems, and so far my bush has been cheerful about such serious pruning.

There’s a Miwok legend that, back in the days before the sun shone everywhere, only the Valley people had fire, and the Mountain people wanted some too. Robin guarded fire in the Valley roundhouse, and Coyote went out searching but couldn’t find it.

White-footed Mouse figured out where it was, and sat down at a gathering in that roundhouse (either with just the Valley people or with the visiting Mountain people too, depending on who’s telling) and played his elder-twig flute till everyone was lulled to sleep. Then he hid some of the fire inside the flute, and after more adventures and a merry chase, brought it to the mountains, where it was tucked under some leaves.

When Coyote lifted the leaves to find the fire, most of it shot into the sky and became the sun. Some was left behind, and the people put that into the buckeye and the incense cedar, where now anyone can find it.

Elderberry does occupy that margin between wild and garden, forest and field. Donald Culross Peattie mentions it in his Natural History of Western Trees as “a ruderal little tree”; that is, a plant that grows on “waste ground.” That’s a loaded term, but it just means disturbed areas; you often see wild elders on road margins—their white flowerheads light up mile after mile of highway in Florida—and along trails, a sort of forest doorkeeper.

That’s appropriate for a garden, too; you’d want it between your beds and whatever boundary of big trees you have. Ask your elder relatives for pie, tea, and fritter recipes, or try Carolyn Niethammer’s American Indian Cooking. Share the berries with the birds, and you might even get a flock of waxwings to visit.

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