Respect your elderberries!

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Photo by DON BARTLING Traditionally, Native Americans used elderberries to treat infections, while the ancient Egyptians used it to improve their complexions and heal burns. It’s still gathered and used in folk medicine across Europe.

Many wild berry species make their home on the banks of rivers and streams in Boundary County, where the fertile soil that accumulates produces abundant crops. One that is in full color now along the rivers and streams is the blue elderberry.

Blue elderberry (Sambucus Caerulea) is a large, deciduous shrub or small tree, growing as tall as 30 feet. The blue elderberry is distinguishable from other elderberries by the glaucous powder coating on its bluish-black berries. The leaves are commonly 1-6 inches long and 1-2.5 inches wide. It has cream or yellow flowers in the spring and purple berries in the fall. Its berries are one of the most important sources of food for birds in the Northwest.

Sometimes propagated as an ornamental shrub, the elderberry bush is a member of the honeysuckle family. It’s actually a small tree, with an abundance of delicate white flowers emerging as berry clusters generally between August and October, mostly in cool-to-warm areas of the country, like the northwest United States and Canada.

The blue elderberry is a uniquely American fruit familiar to the nation’s first inhabitants. Traditional uses for elderberries by Native Americans, who made use of every little part of the plant, included tools crafted from the branches, such as arrow shafts and pipes, as well as the berries.

In 1899, an American sailor accidentally discovered that cheap port wine colored with elderberries relieved his arthritis. This may have been the basis for a number of experiments on the healing properties of this fruit.

Other traditional uses of elderberry flowers are as external antiseptic washes and poultices to treat wounds, and as eye wash for inflammation. It’s been used for cosmetic purposes for millennia due to the reputation of distilled elderberry flower water to soften, tone and restore the skin and lighten freckles. The flowers can also be steeped in oil to make a lotion that relaxes sore muscles and soothes burns, sunburn and rashes.

Some early tribes used the wood from the elderberry to make musical instruments, such as flutes, clappers, and small whistles; and smoking implements. Soft wood was used as a spindle “twirling stick” to make fire by friction. Stems and berries were also used as a dye for basket weaving materials.

This shrub has soft, smooth, gray-brownish bark with corky bumps. There is spongy, white pith inside the twigs and branches. The elderberry bush produces showy white umbel flowers in the spring. Edible bluish-black fruit ripens in drooping clusters late summer and early fall.

The blue elderberry bush attracts birds and butterflies and can be pruned back every few years to keep it looking good in a landscaped garden.

Enjoy Boundary County and its beauty in the fall.

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