For my first post on this site, I thought to tie together my love of natives with my love of herbs, and help celebrate the 2013 International Herb of the Year – elder or elderberry (Sambucus). Much of the following is adapted from my 2011 book Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (2011, Tierra del Sol Press).
Here in the southwest we have the Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana). Common names include saúco, tapiro, flor de sauz, capulin silvestre (Spanish); shiksh (O’odham); and bixihumi (Nahutal). Elders are in the Caprifoliaceae or Honeysuckle Family, although some botanists now consider this the moschatel family, Adoxaceae, which includes Viburnum.
Mexican elder is a deciduous tree that can reach 20 to 30 feet high, spreading to 20 feet wide when grown in full sun in average, well-drained soil and with ample moisture. Elder is very versatile and various parts of the plant have uses that include: cosmetic, culinary, dye, edible flowers, medicinal, ornamental, and to attract wildlife.
There are numerous species of elder found around the world,mostly in more temperate areas. All species have more or less edible berries, although some species can be toxic without special preparation.
Most European species of Sambucus are shrubby, thus early European explorers such as Father Kino must have been surprised to discover Sonoran elderberry trees thirty feet tall. Undaunted, he encouraged planting the native elderberry trees in the mission gardens.
The wood of elderberry trees has a lovely grain and tone and is prized for musical instruments, including drums, flutes and a didgeridoo-like instrument. The nectar-rich flowers are harvested for elder champagne and other drinks. The flowers are also dipped in batter and fried or added to omelets and cakes. Also, an edible fungus known as the jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) grows on elder wood.
In the Old World, virtually all species of elder flowers and berries have been used medicinally since at least Egyptian times. The dried flowers are made into an infusion as a febrifuge. The berries are said to help the immune system ward against and fight off infections, colds, and flus. Berries for this are gently heated to make a syrup, made into tinctures, or dried and subsequently made into infusions. Recent evidence indicates that black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) does indeed help the body fight off influenza, reducing illness to a mere two to three days as opposed to two to three weeks for those who had taken the placebo.
Wildlife prize the elder. Flowers are a rich source of nectar. Some species of Lepidoptera use the plant as a larval host plant. The fruit is considered good for native desert tortoises in captivity. But birds especially enjoy the berries, as the fruit is sweet and both the berry and the seed are rich in waxes and oils. Since I want to share my yard with wildlife, I harvest what I need, process the fruit, then put the seed pulp back out by the trees for the wildlife to feast upon. And yes, it does stain the flagstones for a while, but a few good rains and the stains wash away. A small price to pay to watch the cardinals and phainopepla cavort. The insectivorous birds come down to check out the action, and help clean up any insects eating the pulp.
Selection of Species.
For warm southwest, in the lower elevation areas of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, select Sambucus mexicana.
For cooler areas of the southwest, and in the Mohave and Great Basin deserts, select Sambucus caerulea.
In the temperate areas of eastern North America you can plant the native Sambucus canadensis.
Planting and Care.
In the wild, Mexican elderberry trees were once common along our year-round rivers such as the Santa Cruz River, Rillito River, and even within my lifetime along the Pantano (we used to stand in our stirrups to pick and eat the ripe berries). Since the water table has dropped and the water is gone, the elderberry trees are gone too. A few struggling trees can still be found along remote washes at the edges of mountains where there is sufficient water close to the surface.
With this in mind, know that elderberry trees will need water. Thus if you plant them where they will get roof runoff and plan on watering them through the dry months, you can have this lovely tree in your landscape.
Planted on an east side of the home, the young elderberry tree will have some relief from summer sun in the afternoon, plus, once it gets large enough, it will offer your home shade from the summer sun for at least part of the day. Since they are deciduous, they will drop their leaves in winter and allow the winter sun to strike your home for some free solar heating.
A handful of seeds, well-buried and kept moist, will quickly grow into a tree. Be sure the soil is well-drained, not clay. A general purpose fertilizer will help your elder tree grow even faster. Before you plant, remember that these trees get large with sufficient water, and plan your placement accordingly. A tree with a trunk 18 inch in diameter is a real possibility.
Harvesting and Use.
You can harvest the flowers and dry them for later use. Fresh flowers are high in sugar and make a nice wine or champagne. By far the most common use of elderberry is the berries. Harvest by cutting the stem below the cluster. Berries can be dried for later use as an element in healing teas or tinctures.
Most commonly the berries are made into a syrup. Heat them gently with water to soften the flesh. Strain out the seeds and pulp as you would to make jelly. Add honey or sugar, generally in the ratio of two parts juice to one part sweetener. You can store this in the refrigerator for two to three months, or further preserve by canning.
As always, enjoy!
© 2013, Jacqueline Soule. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us