When the last of the desert wildflowers have wilted, it’s time for elderberry bushes to flower and remind us that it is still spring. This year it is most appropriate to gather elderblow (the word for the flowers) because 2013 is the Year of the Elder. Later in summer, the blue black berries are an enticement to both birds and humans.
The following is written by Dr. Jacqueline Soule, adapted from her book Father Kino’s Herbs.
From Dr. Soule:
“Here in the southwest we have the Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana). Common names include saúco, tapiro, flor de sauz, capulin silvestre (Spanish); shiksh (O’odham); and bixihumi (Nahutal). Elders are in the Caprifoliaceae or Honeysuckle Family, although some botanists now consider this the moschatel family, Adoxaceae, which includes Viburnum.
“Mexican elder is a deciduous tree that can reach 20 to 30 feet high, spreading to 20 feet wide when grown in full sun in average, well-drained soil and with ample moisture. Elder is very versatile and various parts of the plant have uses that include: cosmetic, culinary, dye, edible flowers, medicinal, ornamental, and to attract wildlife.
“There are numerous species of elder found around the world, mostly in more temperate areas. All species have more or less edible berries, although some species can be toxic without special preparation. (Note from Carolyn: In one of my first forays into eating straight from the desert back in 1970, I made myself very ill by eating raw elderberries. Hours lying on the bathroom floor wondering if I’d live. Not everyone reacts this way, but be very careful. Flowers and cook berries are fine.)
“Most European species of Sambucus are shrubby, thus early European explorers such as Father Kino must have been surprised to discover Sonoran elderberry trees thirty feet tall. Undaunted, he encouraged planting the native elderberry trees in the mission gardens.
“The wood of elderberry trees has a lovely grain and tone and is prized for musical instruments, including drums, flutes and a didgeridoo-like instrument. The nectar-rich flowers are harvested for elder champagne and other drinks. The flowers are also dipped in batter and fried or added to omelets and cakes. Also, an edible fungus known as the jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) grows on elder wood.
“In the Old World, virtually all species of elder flowers and berries have been used medicinally since at least Egyptian times. The dried flowers are made into an infusion as a febrifuge (Note from Carolyn: that’s a medication that reduces fever). The berries are said to help the immune system ward against and fight off infections, colds, and flus. Berries for this are gently heated to make a syrup, made into tinctures, or dried and subsequently made into infusions. Recent evidence indicates that black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) does indeed help the body fight off influenza, reducing illness to a mere two to three days as opposed to two to three weeks for those who had taken the placebo.”
If Dr. Soule’s information has you interested, you can try the following whether you are ill or not.
For a refreshing spring tea, cover dried or fresh elderberry flowers, a little fresh mint, and some culinary lavender buds with boiling water. Let steep overnight, drain. Taste and dilute as necessary. Can add club soda or sparkling mineral water. Serve over ice.
Interested in more recipes for wild desert foods? Check out my book Cooking the Wild Southwest for delicious mesquite recipes as well as recipes for 22 other easily recognized and gathered southwest plants. For a short video on some of the interesting plants you can gather, click here.