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.
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
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Update: June 2012