sambucus-caeruleaCommon name:  blue elderberry

Scientific name:  Sambucus caerulea

Native American names:  ts’ak’wik wuni (Chehalis),tsikwI’q (Green River), tseqwek (Klallam), tsikwi’k (Lummi),k’we’lap (Quinault), tsikwik (Skagit), tsikwixEd (Skokomish),t’sikwi’kwats (Squaxin), t’sEqwi’uk (Swinomish)[2]

Plant family:  Caprifoliaceae- Honeysuckle Family

Description:  Blue elderberry is a deciduous shrub with several pithy stems that ranges from 6 to 20 feet in height.  The leaves of the blue elderberry are 2 to 5 inches long.  They are alternate and lance shaped.  It has tiny creamy-white flowers shaped in a flat-topped cluster that are about 10 inches in diameter.  Its fruit are berries that are clustered and hang down.  The berries appear in September through October are dark blue with a whitish, waxy coating.  The plant is poisonous when ingested except for the berries and flowers.

sambucus-caerulea2Habitat and Range:  Sambucus caerulea grows on moist, well-drained sunny sites, usually on openings in moist forest habitats such as stream banks slopes or canyons.  It also occurs in moist areas within drier, more open habitats.  It thrives in rich soils in valleys and open slopes at low to moderate elevations.[3] It is commonly found east of the Cascades, from southern British Columbia to western Montana and south to California and New Mexico.

Historical and contemporary uses: Many indigenous groups within the plants’ range, including Straits, Halkomelem and Comox on the Coast and Nlaka’ pamux and Lillooet collected the berries with a hooked implement.  They were sometimes eaten raw but more commonly cooked into a jam-like product.  Sometimes the cooked berries were spread out to dry in cakes for winter and some people extracted the juice from the cooked berries. Nlaka’ pamux people used the juice for marinating fish.[4]

The bark from the elderberry branch was very important as well.  It was most often used in the construction of arrow shafts.  Flutes and whistles were also constructed by boring holes into the hollowed out stems.  Clapper sticks were made by splitting the stem and clapping the two halves against each other.  These sticks were an essential aspect in accompanying singing and dancing in various ceremonies that took place in the round house.  Elderberry twigs and fruit are employed in creating dyes for basketry. These stems are dyed a very deep black by soaking them for a week or so in a wash made fr­om the berry stems of the elderberry.[5]

Blue elderberry flowers are high in vitamins A, B and C as well as the minerals calcium, iron and potassium.  It has antiviral properties and is used medicinally to help in the prevention of colds and flus as well as overall immune function.   The flowers are steeped in hot water, are used to break dry fevers and stimulate perspiration, aid headache, indigestion, bladder or kidney infections, colds and flus.  Used as a wash, the flowers or leaves are good for wounds, sprains, and bruises, as well as for sores on domestic animals.

[1] Kallas, John. “What Is Edible?” Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010. Print.

[2] Gunther, Erna. Ethnobotany of Western Washington,. Seattle: University of Washington, 1973. Print.

[3] Pojar, Jim, A. MacKinnon, and Paul B. Alaback. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine Pub., 1994. Print.

[4] Krohn, Elise, and Valerie Segrest. Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture. Washington (State)?: E. Krohn?, 2010. Print.

[5] USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program. “Plant Guide: Blue Elderberry.” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Web. <>.

Drawing on the following page by Serena Rebers