Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: Elderberry Tree Stands in the Margins

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday June 05, 2007

Elderberry is a bit more a tree than last column’s rose is, but we usually see it as a shrub: multi-trunked, relatively small. But the wonderful natural history writer Donald Culross Peattie called it a tree, and I’ve seen western pewee and other tree-nesting birds make themselves homes in tall specimens; that’s good enough for me.  

Sometimes I have to stand back and look again to identify the little tree in front of me as an elderberry, if it’s (typically) in a tangle of oak and California bay and poison oak. The leaf shape, that feathery compound, is diagnostic. So, even in winter, is the arching fountain form of the whole individual, even when it’s being elbowed by more forceful neighbors.  

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 aboriginal 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 suppose what’s going on 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.) 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 chosen for their size, already hollow, or pithy and easy to hollow out. Flutemakers cut them green and let them dry; one writer says they used to bore fingerholes by touching hot coals to the sticks at random intervals, so no two flutes had the same scale. If true, 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 shafts, elderberry plants are coppiced to produce straight stems.  

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 a layer of 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. Peattie in his Natural History of Western Trees calls it “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 an appropriate position for elderberry in 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 book American Indian Cooking. Share the berries with the birds, and you might even get a flock of waxwings to visit.  



Photograph by Ron Sullivan. 

This elderberry has grown to tree size in an unusually isolated spot in Sibley park.