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Plant of the Month   ~~   AUGUST 2008

updated on or about the 1st of each month


ELDERBERRY


  • Common Name(s): Elderberry, Mexican Elderberry, Western Elderberry
  • Scientific Name: Sambucus mexicana
  • Family: Caprifoliaceae, Honeysuckle family
  • Plant Type: Deciduous shrub or small tree
  • Size: up to 25 feet high and wide
  • Common Habitat: woodlands, open areas and chaparral

Elderberry is a shrub whose showy blossoms in late spring turn over to clusters of bluish-purple, edible berries in late summer. The tiny, creamy-white, 5-petalled flowers occur in flat-topped bunches from April to August. The bunches are up to 8 inches wide and can be seen from quite a distance. The pea-size berries that follow are used in making jams, pies and wine. Many kinds of birds flock to the fruit and bees frequent the flowers. The leaflets have toothed edges and are about 2 inches long, arranged on branches that are opposite and pinnately compound. The base of the plant usually is multi-trunked.

It is said that aside from the berries, the other parts of the plant are considered poisonous, and contact can cause certain discomforts such as nausea or worse. Nonetheless, native people did find a number of other uses. The flowers, when dried, made a tea for soothing fevers and flu, and were also applied to the skin to relieve itching or ease the pain of sprains. In addition to eating the berries, they were also used as dye. Roots, bark and leaves have diuretic properties. Roots and bark were also used to ease constipation. The branches and trunk were used to make bows, and in hollowing them out they formed a flute-like musical instrument. The species name Sambucus refers to a musical instrument called a sambuke.


Contributed by Liz Baumann

Curious what was featured in past Plants of the Month? Search the Archives.

References:
Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, by Milt McAuley
Flowering Plants: The Santa Monica Mountains, Coastal and Chaparral Regions of Southern California, by Nancy Dale
Roadside Plants of Southern California, by Thomas J. Belzer
California Native Plants for the Garden, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien
California Herbal Remedies, by LoLo Westrich

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