Sage LaPena, Nomtipom and Tunai Wintu ethnobotanist and certified Medical Herbalist
Reflections on elderberry from a December 2019 conversation
Elderberry is one of our most important traditional medicines and we’ve never stopped using it. My tribe is from a village that used to be at the headwaters of the Trinity River, where the Lewiston Lake – a reservoir created by Lewiston Dam – now sits. I’m Nomtipom and Tunai Wintu Indian from Trinity and Siskiyou Counties. I was born and raised in California and I started my herbal training as a child when I was about 8 years old, working with Wintun and Pomo elders. I am now a medically certified, practicing herbalist.
Medicinally, elderflowers are a febrifuge and have a diaphoretic quality which lowers fever. They are steeped in water and made into a tea. Flowers can also be used to make tinctures; the alcohol or glycerin or vinegar act as a preservative and also help draw the medicine from the plant. To harvest the flowers, we cut the entire umbel and let it dry. Once dry, the flowers will just shake off. Traditionally, the leaves and stems of the plant were used as an emetic, used to induce vomiting.
The fruit is not eaten fresh off the plant. It’s always dried and then cooked so you’re not consuming the cyanide-inducing glycoside in the seeds. Lower tribes in the Sacramento Valley utilized tulle, which covered the huge flood plain, to make mats, and laid the berries out on the tulle mats. Once dried, the berries can be cooked or stewed and then made into syrups. Each year I make multiple cases of syrup from the berries; it’s one of the best bronchial treatments.
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. We utilize smaller wood for whistles used daily by many practitioners or traditional people for song and prayer. The wood is harvested in the wintertime, when the plant is dormant, and used to make a musical instrument called a clapperstick. Traditionally, wood small enough to cut with a stone blade or obsidian blade would have been cut that way. Harvesting of the wood and fruit and flowers and basket-weaving and all of these uses of the plant which we consider to be traditional ecological knowledge or tribal environmental knowledge are, of course, multi-generational and have been going on as long as we have been in situ in these places that we call home.
In the past, Native people in California burned woody plants such as elderberry to promote regrowth and overall plant health. Now, we’re in a humongous fire deficit in the state due to a fire suppression policy going back about 100 years. So now, we do both pollarding and coppicing. If you are pollarding, you top the plant but don’t remove any wood over 1”, only cutting the smaller wood on top. If you are coppicing, you cut the plant all the way down to the ground and the next year you’ll have multiple stalks. By doing this every year you’re always going to have fresh wood that is small and won’t get over the 1” size. The elderberry beetle occupies specific sized wood. If we go to wood that is dormant, there is less chance of disturbing the beetle within. For myself, as an ethnobotanist and a medical, clinically trained herbalist – and also as a traditional herbalist – I am on the side of the plants themselves and their biological niche in the whole ecological system. They serve a purpose to earth as they do to the insect as they do to humans. Elderberry is more than just a hedgerow plant or insect habitat, more than just for the berry or for medicine.
The people that are from the Sacramento Valley are very much still here, both the Maidu and the Miwok. So when we talk about – “Oh, how did these people use these things?” – they use them now. This is not a past dead culture, it is very much alive, going through a renaissance. The root of the culture are in the roots of the plant, and also rooted in the present moment.