West Coast Wild Harvest Issue 1 Spring/Summer 2016 - Page 63

HISTORICAL Flat topped blue elderberry flowers Conical red elderberry flowers twig. Leaves are pinnately compound with 5–7 lanceolate leaflets that have acuminate tips and serrated margins. In April and early May, small white flowers are born in upright to drooping cone shaped clusters (panicles). The fruit changes from green to orange, ripening to a bright red by the end of June. Berries (drupes) are about 5 millimetres wide, spherical to egg-shaped, with 2–5 seed (nutlets) that are up to 3 millimetres long and 1.5 millimetres wide. Red elderberries thrive in our moist mild climates throughout nearly all of the forested Pacific Northwest. Look for them in forests and forest margins from sea level to subalpine. Red elderberry can readily be distinguished from blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) by its flowers and fruit. The flowers and fruit of red elderberry are in cone-shaped clusters whereas those of blue elderberry are flat-topped. Red elderberry also flowers in the spring and fruits in the summer whereas blue elderberry flowers in the summer and fruits in the fall. For those who like to test their wintertime elderberry identification skills, notice that the young stems of red elderberry are purplish grey whereas those of blue elderberry are orangish grey. were bent to the ground using hooked sticks and entire berry clusters were broken off and placed in baskets. When several baskets were full, the berries were stripped off of their stems and steamed or boiled in bentwood boxes, small canoes, or skunk cabbage lined pit ovens for several hours. The cooked berries were then spread out onto skunk cabbage leaves to dry above a hot fire or in the sun to make berry cakes (fruit leather), which was often stored until the winter before being consumed. Though abundant, elderberry fruit was considered second rate and was often mixed as a bulking agent with better tasting berries. During the historic period many First Nations steamed red elderberries in steel pots, sweetened the fruit with sugar, and canned them in glass jars. Red elderberries are very seedy and the Kwakwaka’wakw, who generally believed it was rude to drink water during or directly after a feast, made an exception for red elderberries so that people could rinse the seeds out of their mouths. Today few people eat red elderberries, perhaps on account of their slightly bitter-pungent flavour. Traditional Uses Elderberry Fruit Leather Red elderberries were traditionally harvested and processed for food by virtually all the First Nations groups throughout the plant’s range in the Pacific Northwest for several thousands of years. Berry-laden branches Last summer, the first red elderberries began to fully ripen in the middle of July. My wife Katrina, and I plucked off entire berry clusters and quickly filled two grocery bags. We put our berries in the freezer for a SPRING/SUMMER 2016 63