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The importance of elderberry

Elderberry is a fairly common plant that likes to grow on moist sites with rich soil. It was once held in high esteem by both European settlers and Native American tribes for its medicinal and food value. It is also a highly prized food for several wildlife species.

The European version of elderberry is the Black Elder, also called Elder Tree. The word Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “aeld” meaning ‘fire’. In medieval times it was the most revered of trees, and was said to have powers to do both good and evil. It was planted to ward off witches, and one could be cursed for cutting or burning an Elder tree. The tree was considered the medicine chest of country people, and almost all parts of the tree were used to treat some malady. Tradition holds that Judas hanged himself on an Elder Tree.

Our native Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) grows as a mult-stemmed shrub that average 3-10 feet in height. It has very showy white flowers in early summer that form in flat-topped clusters. The leaves are compound, made up of 5 to 11 leaflets that are lance-shaped with a toothed edge. The leaves form on the branches in opposing pairs. In late summer and fall the flowers are replaced by clusters of small purple-black berries about the size of a BB. Each berry has a large seed pit.

Probably the best known use for the fruit of elderberry is for making wine, which in earlier times was primarily used as a medicinal. Elderberry wine or a tea made from berries and peppermint was used to treat colds, induce sweating, and treat nausea. Native Americans used the leaves as a poultice to treat cuts, sore joints, and stop bleeding. A very tart drink can be made from the ripe berries, which for my part needs lots of sugar. Jelly can also be made from the berries, but you’ll have to add pectin. The berries are very rich in Vitamin C, and also contain Vitamin A, calcium, iron, and potassium. A word of caution here: the bark, root, leaves, and unripe berries are consider toxic, so be sure the berries are good and ripe. As with any unfamiliar food, always eat only a small portion at first in case of an allergic reaction.

Elderberry is an important source of summer food for many kinds of songbirds. Game birds, squirrels, and deer also feed on the fruit and foliage.

Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.