Lush clusters of dainty white flowers droop from healthy green shrubs throughout the Anza Valley. Blue elderberry bushes are in full bloom, and berries are starting to ripen, providing tasty food for people, birds, mammals and insects.
The blue elderberry, Sambucus nigra, subspecies caerulea syn. Sambucus mexicana, is also known as the Mexican elderberry and is common in the region. It grows as a deciduous shrub, ranging from Oregon to Baja California, Mexico. It’s close relative, the red elderberry, can be found in more coastal habitats.
The blue elderberry is a fast growing, multi-trunked large shrub or small tree that can grow to a maximum height of about 30 feet. The leaves are divided into one to six long, toothed leaflets. Large clusters of pretty white flowers develop in the spring and summer, followed by dense clusters of blue to black berries. The flowers and berries attract insects, birds, rodents and people.
The lowly shrub is one of the most important food sources for birds, bees and butterflies in California. It also provides dense, low cover for many small mammals, birds and bugs.
The blue elderberry is the host plant for the valley elderberry longhorn beetle. The beetle’s current California Fish & Wildlife Service status is “threatened” because of habitat loss and competition from invasive species. The adult beetles feed on the plant’s leaves and flowers, and the developing larvae eat the insides of the stems. Since the blue elderberry shrub is its host plant, it is protected from being disturbed, removed, destroyed and trimmed if the branches are larger than 1 inch in diameter.
Indigenous Californians used blue elderberries as a main food source and as a natural remedy to benefit the immune system.
The Diegueño, Coast Miwok, Kashaya, Cahuilla and Yuki tribes used elderberry blossoms as a tea to treat fevers, colds and chest congestion. The Maidu Indians used the branches of the Sambucus species to make arrow shafts, fire drills, atlatl spear shafts and salmon spear toggles.
The entire elderberry plant is mildly toxic, and some people get an unpleasant reaction to eating the fresh berries. Most people find the blossoms and berries edible in small amounts. The tiny fruits are commonly used in jellies, syrups and wine. Cooking or drying the flowers and berries destroys the toxins, making them safer to eat, but elderberry stems and the fruit of the coastal red elderberry is always toxic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded a poisoning from elderberry juice in California.
In 1983, 11 people attending a small religious and philosophical event in Monterey County were hospitalized after drinking juice made from local, wild elderberries. Bunches of berries were crushed with their leaves and branches in a stainless-steel press. Apple juice, water and sugar were added, and the mixture served the following day.
Victims reported nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, weakness and some complained of dizziness and numbness. One patient was in a stupor upon arrival at the hospital. The severity of symptoms was found to be directly related to the quantity of elderberry juice consumed. Those who drank only tea remained unaffected.
No other reports of elderberry juice poisoning have been documented in the past 20 years. While elderberries are safe to consume, especially when they are cooked, leaves and stems should not be crushed with the berries when making juice.
The fresh leaves, flowers, bark, young buds and roots contain a bitter alkaloid and a glucoside that in certain conditions can produce hydrocyanic acid, a highly poisonous acidic solution of hydrogen cyanide in water. The safest method is to enjoy cooked or dried berries and blossoms only.