Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 425-A   September 18, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The Elderberry, or American Elder, is one of the most common fruit- bearing shrubs of North America and, to the Indians and early settlers, one of the most useful. It thrives along roadsides, fencerows and streams or in low places and moist open woodlands. From a tangled mass of roots it sends up several stems from 5 to 10 feet tall and usually a number of sprouts. Its fragrant blossoms -- broad flat-topped many- branched clusters of little creamy white star-shaped flowers -- do not appear until June or July when the days are very long.

The older stems have branches at joints about a foot apart -- sometimes several at a joint -- and along these are pairs of compound leaves each having from 5 to 11 narrow pointed leaflets. When bruised, the leaflets have a rank disagreeable smell. The branches and young stems have a thin shell of wood around a cylinder of soft white pith.

Boys on farms and in small towns have always poked the pith centers from elder stems to make tubes for whistles, bean shooters, and popguns to shoot paper wads. Spiles similarly made were inserted in sugar maples to drain the sap into buckets. The Ojibwe or Chippewa name for this shrub meant "popgun wood. .

The flowers are followed by little berries that become deep purple or black, filled with crimson juice, when they ripen in August or September. Then the heavy drooping clusters are picked for various purposes or remain to serve as food for many kinds of birds. The berries are sweet but rather flat-tasting and their flavor is improved by adding something tart like lemon rind, or better, the wild grapes that ripen at the same time. Either fresh, canned, or dried, they can be used like blueberries in pies, muffins and pancakes. If vinegar or pectin and plenty of sugar are added, they make good jam and jelly.

Elderberry wine has been famous since early times. However, what prim spinsters and our pious grandmothers served in their parlors to "company" was slightly fermented, if at all. Some people also make a delicate wine from the flowers; others brew a fragrant tea; and fritters made by frying the flower clusters in egg batter are delicious.

Elderberry may be used also as a drug plant: the ripe fruits in cooling drinks for feverish sick folks; the flowers in soothing eye lotions; the inner bark of stems and roots to make tea which is a laxative when weak but an emetic and purgative if made stronger. The Ojibwe and other Indians cut four sections of stem, each reaching from the elbow to the wrist bone, removed the outer bark and then peeled the inner bark upward if it was to be steeped, boiled and used as an emetic. It was peeled downward for use as a purgative when other remedies had failed.

The Blueberried Elder, which ranges over the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast regions, has larger better-flavored fruit than any of the several species native in this country. It was called "the tree of music" by Indians in California because it often reaches the size of a small tree and there young men, when courting, played flutes made of its stems. Sambucus, scientific name for the elders, is the Latin word for an ancient Roman musical instrument having a series of elder tubes in varying lengths.

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