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Indigenous Relationship to Elderberry

Cultural & Traditional Medicinal Significance

North America’s indigenous people were the first harvesters and tenders of blue elderberry in California, and many Native persons across the state continue to gather, cultivate, and use elderberry. Various parts of the plant are used for food, medicine, dye color for baskets, pipes, game pieces, and musical instruments. Traditionally, elder flowers were used medicinally—in teas for treating fevers and other ailments, or in a hot bath to induce sweating (Timbrook 1990, Lightfoot 2009, Walker 2014)—and its berries were dried to store into the winter, when they were later cooked into a rich, sweet sauce (Barrows 1900, Barret 1933, Lightfoot 2009).

“Elderberry is one of our most important traditional medicines and we’ve never stopped using it,” says Sage LaPena, Nomtipom and Tunai Wintu ethnobotanist and certified Medical Herbalist. “When we look at our traditional ecological knowledge, how we use elderberry—which includes all of the parts of the plant: roots, wood, berry, flower—they are all harvested at specific times of year.”

For some tribes, elderberry’s lifecycle serves as an indicator of seasonal rhythms, guiding the timing of other food harvests. For the Northern Foothill Yokuts, the elderberry harvest in August coincided with the time to harvest sugar pine nuts, and the Coastal Pomo tracked their shellfish gathering window by the flowering and ripening of elderberry (Anderson 2005, Lightfoot 2009).

Prior to Euro-American policies of fire suppression, native people actively managed elderberry stands using fire as a strategy for reducing plant density and increasing fruit production (Anderson 2005, LaPena personal communication). Although native blue elderberry grows readily from the foothills to the coast, loss of access to land and harvesting rights, as well as federal endangered species regulations, can present barriers to attaining abundant supply.