Elderberry Memories

Medicine, music, and more through time

The berries are ripening on wild Southern California Kuuht (Serrano), Hunqwat (Cahuilla), and Kutpat (Luiseño), also known as Blue Elderberry (and for those who want the Latin, Sambucus nigra L. ssp. caerulea (Raf.) Bolli).

FOOD: The berries have been savored through time, offering healthy vitamin C. In older times Cahuilla people gathered huge amounts, ate them fresh, made syrups, and dried berries, storing those in clay ollas for use throughout the year (Bean and Saubel, 1972). In 2020 the berries make delicious jams, jellies, and syrups. Several years ago at our Dorothy Ramon Learning Center Dragonfly Gala, the crowd enjoyed an elderberry dessert created by volunteer Claire Teeters.

FLOWERS: Medicine for colds and fever.
Elderberry products have appeared steadily in recent years in supermarkets and drug stores, often portrayed as a “new” fighter of colds and flu. Nothing new for many Native Americans — Elder Ernest Siva recalls growing up with elderberry.

In prehistoric times elderberry flowers were widely used for fevers, colds, upset stomachs, teething babies. In 1800s Southern California, Indians taught settlers to fight a cold by drinking a tea from the flowers (Timbrook 2007). Leaves and flowers were used for soaks, plasters, and poultices. Note: Nearly all parts of Blue Elderberry, including the flowers, contain poisonous alkaloids and other substances that quickly can make people very ill (Bean and Saubel, 1972). Further, there have been medical debates over whether elderberry accelerates COVID-19 infections. Check with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest updates. Like all medicines, elderberry demands huge respect, care, and intimate knowledge.

MUSIC: Elderberry is a music tree. The soft pith in a stem hollows quickly to make flutes and whistles. A bullroarer made of elderberry was important in past ceremonies. We cherish the music of a split-stick rattle, or clapperstick, wansak in Barbareño and 'akskatata in Ventureño (Timbrook 2007), that accompanies Chumash songs. Elder wood also makes a good firestick, or drill used to start a fire.

BASKETRY DYE: A black dye from combinations of roots, stems, and berries was especially prized by Serrano weaver-artists, Ruth Benedict found in 1924 (Lerch, 2005).

LEARN MORE: Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian knowledge and usage of plants, Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel, 1972, Malki-Ballena Press.
Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California, Jan Timbrook, 2007, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Heyday Books.

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