Sambucus racemosa / Trosvlier, Bergvlier

The genus name Sambucus comes from the Latin word sackbut or more properly, sabb’ka, which was the name of a little known ancient Aramaic stringed instrument supposedly made from elderberry wood ( 2013). In the middle ages, the word was also used to describe a wind instrument made from hollow elderberry stalks (Wikipedia 2013). The species epithet racemosa refers to the clustered flowers. Red Elderberry wood is used for flutes, funnels, and bows. The flowers and fruit are cooked and eaten or made into wine or syrup. While the roots, bark, and leaves are poisonous, they have medicinal value in small doses as emetics. The fruit have been used for centuries by numerous cultures as an herbal remedy for rheumatism, which may explain the common name “elderberry.”

Red elderberries were traditionally harvested and processed for food by virtually all the Native American groups throughout the plant's range in the Pacific Northwest (Gunther 1945; Turner 1995) for several thousands of years (Losey et al. 2003). Berry laden branches were bent to the ground using hooked sticks and entire berry clusters were broken off and placed in baskets. When several baskets were full, the berries were stripped off of their stems and steamed or boiled in bentwood boxes, small canoes, or skunk cabbage lined pit ovens for several hours. The cooked berries were then spread out onto skunk cabbage leaves to dry above a hot fire or in the sun to make berry cakes (fruit leather), which was often stored until the winter before being consumed (Boas 1921; Gill 1984). Though abundant, elderberry fruit was considered second rate and was often mixed as a bulking agent with better tasting berries. During the historic period many Native Americans steamed Red Elderberries in steel pots, sweetened the fruit with sugar, and canned them in glass jars (Turner 1995). Red Elderberries are very seedy and the Kwakwaka’wakw, who generally believed it was rude to drink water during or directly after a feast, made an exception for Red Elderberries so that people could rinse the seeds out of their mouth (Boas 1921, pgs 564-566). Today few people eat Red Elderberries on account of their slightly bitter-pungent flavor.

Once all the stems were removed we boiled the fruit in a pot with 1 cup of water until the fruit began to juice, and then reduced the juice on low heat for several hours until the pan began to dry out. Then we ran the berries through a fruit mill to separate the seeds from the pulp. The abundance of seeds caused the fruit strainer to bind, so I loosened the screen to allow more space between the auger and the screen. Approximately ¼ of the seeds were crushed into meal and pushed through the screen but we did our best to separate the seed meal from the pulp. I wasn’t keen on eating the seed pulp as some studies suggest that the toxic compounds are concentrated in the seeds. Archaeological recovery of aggregations of elderberry seeds suggests that Native Americans were removing the seeds, but aside from spitting them out at the time of consumption (Boas 1921, pg. 566) a mechanism for removing the small seeds isn't known (Losey et al. 2003). After all the fruit was pulped we sweetened half with ½ cup of brown sugar, and left the other half unsweetened before spreading the pulp onto food dehydrator sheets and dehydrating them for 12 hours. 

Straining the seeds
Our finished fruit leather is a dark purple with a flexible nature and oily texture. While the flavor isn’t great, it is much better than my previous, halfhearted experiments. Initially, the flavor is nice but the aftertaste has a difficult-to-describe pungency that I don’t like. We packaged and froze the fruit leather in the hope that the flavor will improve with storage, which isn’t an unreasonable suspicion given the pervasiveness of this practice among Native Americans.

Finished Red Elderberry fruit leather
My fruit leather will mellow in the freezer for several months, but I have already been plotting my next Red Elderberry experiment. Besides storage, a few ethnographies also mention soaking the cooked fruit in water, and I want to see if the water removes the disagreeable flavors. While working with the Puyallup and Nisqually, Marian Smith (1940, pg. 148) noted that after Red Elderberries were boiled they were, “put into loosely woven baskets which had been well lined with maple leaves. The basket was carefully covered with the same kind of leaves and submerged in a running stream. It took about a month for the berries to cure and be ready to eat. When finished they formed a thick paste ‘as yellow as butter.’ After the basket was opened it had to be kept in the water and the paste was used regularly until it was gone.” Contrary to other ethnographies that ascribe marginal flavor to Red Elderberry, Smith goes on to say “Elderberry paste was mixed with other dried berries to heighten their flavor.” Albert Reagan (1934, pg. 56) documented a similar method of storing (or treating?) Red Elderberries among the Hoh and Quileute. He wrote, “The cooked product is wrapped in skunk-cabbage leaves and buried in the muck in some swampy place, to be dug up when needed.” While cool temperatures and low oxidation rates in submerged environments provide the most likely explanation for this practice, it is conceivable that water storage was a desirable means of leaching out bad tasting constituents in the cooked berries, or slightly fermenting the fruit.

Water storage of Red Elderberries was also practiced in other parts of the Pacific Northwest. According to elders interviewed by Nancy Turner and Randy Bouchard (1976, pg. 81) the Squamish also stored Red Elderberries in water. The berries were cooked until they formed a “molasses-like mass” and placed in a special red cedar basket called tl’pat which was anchored underwater. When the berries were needed, they were pulled up, the required amount removed, and the remainder re-submerged. August Jack concisely describes the process in an interview with Major Mathews (1955, pg. 10): “Elderberry put in sack, you know Indian sack; put sack in creek so clean water run over them and keep them fresh. By and bye get sack out of creek, take some berry out, put sack back again (also quoted in Turner and Bouchard 1976).” The Skagit similarly employed this method, as described by McCormick Collins (1974, pg. 57), “the women might preserve [Red Elderberries] by wrapping them in maple leaves and putting them in a hole dug in wet sand.”  The Kwakwaka’wakw produced also an elderberry paste by soaking the cooked elderberries, but rather than storing the berries in water for several weeks, dried berries were only soaked in water for the duration of four winter ceremonial songs, at which point they were mixed into a paste by hand, and eaten.

The fruits are reportedly safe to eat when cooked, but are potentially poisonous when raw. They were cooked in a variety of recipes by Native Americans, including by the Apache, Bella Coola, Gitxsan, Gosiute, Makah, Ojibwa, Quileute, Skokomish, Yurok peoples.[4]

Warning: Red elderberry fruit may be toxic when taken internally without sufficient preparation.

Uses: The dense roots and rhizomes of red elderberry make it useful for soil stabilization and erosion control on moist sites including streambanks. It provides fair to good food and cover for birds plus small and large mammals. Hummingbirds collect nectar from the flowers. With fair energy and low protein values, this variety is rated fair to good as browse for livestock and game animals. The fruit is high in ascorbic acid. Stems, bark, leaves and roots contain cyanide-producing toxins but berries may be consumed as jelly or wine after cooking. 

This versatile plant can also be used to make dye, insecticide, medicine, and musical instruments. The colorful fruit attracts birds and several cultivars have been developed for ornamental applications.