Blueberry elder, elder, blue elder, Arizona elderberry, American elder, sweet elder, wild elder, flor sauco, tree of music, Danewort, Walewort, New Mexican elderberry, velvet-leaf elder, hairy blue elderberry, and dwarf elder. Synonym: Sambucus caerulea Raf. (the epithet sometimes spelled “cerulea” or “coerulea”). Taxonomically, there have been recent changes in this elderberry species. It was previously divided into Sambucus coriacea, Sambucus orbiculata, Sambucus velutina, and Sambucus caerulea (Munz 1968). This species is known in some floras as Sambucus mexicana.
Elderberries are quite edible. The blue or purple berries are gathered and made into elderberry wine, jam, syrup, and pies. The entire flower cluster can be dipped in batter and fried, while petals can be eaten raw or made into a fragrant and tasty tea. The flowers add an aromatic flavor and lightness to pancakes or fritters.
Botany Dept., NMNH, Smithsonian Institution
The elderberry is of well-known value to the Indians of North America and the many purposes it serves (Barrow 1967). Elderberry is highly prized by both Spaniards and Cahuillas. Throughout the months of July and August, the small clusters of berries are gathered in large quantities. These clusters are dried carefully on the drying floor and preserved in considerable amounts. When wanted, they are cooked into a rich sauce that needs no sweetening. A Cahuilla family, during this season of the year, will subsist largely on these messes of "sauco." Frequently, the elderberry was so greatly enjoyed that families would live for weeks on little else. Many were dried for use in the winter, and were either re-cooked or eaten raw. Elderberries are still highly prized for food by modern Indian people.
Elderberry twigs and fruit are employed in creating dyes for basketry. These stems are dyed a very deep black by soaking them for a week or so in a wash made from the berry stems of the elderberry (Barrows 1967). The Cahuilla split basketry materials from the aromatic sumac (Rhus trilobata).
Elderberry branches were used to make the shaft of arrows. Flutes and whistles were constructed by boring holes into stems hollowed out with hot sticks. Clapper sticks were made by splitting the stem and clapping the two halves against each other. Clapper sticks were used ceremonially in the round-house to accompany singing and dancing. The pith of the stems was used as tinder, and the stem itself was employed as a twirling stick for starting the fire. Hollowed-out elderberry stems can be made into squirt guns.
General: Honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). Native shrubs growing 2-4(-8) m tall, less commonly small single-stemmed trees, young twigs soft and pithy but the wood hard; bark thin, grayish to dark brown, irregularly furrowed and ridged. The pinnately compound leaves are deciduous, opposite, about 15-35 cm long, odd-pinnate with (3-)5-9 serrate leaflets 2-15 cm long, often with a long stalk, often asymmetrical at the base. Elderberry leaves, especially on seedlings or shrub-sized plants (without fruits or flowers) resemble California walnut (Juglans hindsii) and Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia). The inflorescence is flat-topped, 4-20(-30) cm across, broader than high; flowers bisexual, the corollas small, white to cream, rotate, 5-lobed, with a pleasant, yet slightly rancid odor. Fruit is berry-like, 5-6 mm wide, with 3-5 nutlets, blue- to purple-black at maturity with a white-waxy bloom and appearing powder blue. The common name “elder” is from the Anglo-Saxon “ellen,” meaning fire-kindler, the dry, pithy stems; blue from the fruit color.
Variation within the species:
A recent proposal treats Sambucus caerulea within a broader species concept – where it is considered the western US segment of S. nigra L., a species covering all of North America and extending into Europe. Ssp. canadensis (L.) R. Bolli (= S. canadensis L.) is the eastern US entity of S. nigra, extending westward into the Great Plains nearly to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
In the middle ages, elderberry was considered a Holy Tree capable of restoring good health, keeping good health, and as an aid to longevity