A photo taken in 1899 of Maria Cassei, and Coahuilla basket maker by George Wharton James
A photo taken in 1899 of Maria Cassei, and Coahuilla basket maker by George Wharton James

By: Sasha de Beausset Aparicio

Just like most of the medicinal plants native to North America, the knowledge of the use of different parts of the elderberry plant in North America is thanks to the oral history of Indigenous Americans. The variety of the Elderberry plant found in North America is now known by its scientific name, Sambucus canadiensis or Sambucus mexicana.

Because indigenous oral history places a greater focus on the knowledge the stories carry, and the lessons, people, and places embodied by each story – rather than on exact dates – the richest parts of ethnobotanical history in North America are the stories and uses themselves.

In this article, we will give you a brief overview of the historical uses of the Elderberry plant among different Native Americans

The Use Elderberry Plant by Coahuilla Indians

One of the first North American texts that document the use of the elderberry plant in North America is David Prescott Barrows’ The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California (also written Cahuilla).1Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago.  Here, the anthropologist describes how a type of grass called su-ul by the Coahuilla, used for weaving, was dyed a deep black by soaking it in a wash made from elderberries (called hun-kwat in Coahuilla) for over a week (p. 46). The black elderberries were also used as food gathered and eaten regularly when available (p. 44). The elder plant in Southern California produces berries in July and August, and these were traditionally gathered and dried on the drying floor and prepared into a rich and sweet sauce. In fact, during the berry season, Barrow reports that Coahuilla families largely subsisted on these fruits, together with chia seeds (p. 63-64).

The Spaniards that inhabited the state recognized the importance these fruits had for the Coahuilla population and named the plant “sauco” in Spanish, a name by which it is still well-known today (p. 63).

Elderberry in the Material Culture of the Indigenous Miwok

The elderberry plant was well distributed throughout the North American region. S.A. Barret and E.W. Gifford documented the use of the elderberry among the Indigenous Miwok.2Barret, S.A., Gifford, E.W. (1933). Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region. Yosemite Association.

As food, the Miwok used the elderberry (specifically Sambucus glauca) in very similar ways to the Coahuilla. For the Miwok, the elder plant was known as Añata’iyo or a’ñtai. They were always eaten cooked, in significant quantities when they were in season, but also dried for winter consumption (ibid).

Muybridge, Eadweard. Miwok Paiute ceremony in 1872 at current site of Yosemite Lodge. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miwok-Paiute_ceremony_in_1872_at_current_site_of_Yosemite_Lodge.jpeg
Muybridge, Eadweard. Miwok Paiute ceremony in 1872 at current site of Yosemite Lodge. Public domain.

The same variety was also used as a remedy for ague (a fever or shivering fit), the flowers were used to make a decoction and taken to reduce shaking. The patient was covered because profuse sweating followed, and this was a sign that it was working (ibid).

Other Uses of the Elderberry Plant North America

Unfortunately, specific uses of the elderberry plant among different indigenous tribes and groups of North America is not very well documented. However, it is known that the Sambucus species was and is used extensively by indigenous populations from all over North America as food, but also medicinally to treat rheumatism and fever.3Borchers, Andrea; Keen, Carl. (2000). Inflammation and Native American medicine: the role of botanicals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 72, Issue 2, 1 August, 2000. P. 339-347. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/72/2/339/4729391

Today, the gastronomic presentations of elderberry include syrups, sauces and pies. Only recently is western medicine beginning to recognize the effectiveness of elder flower and leaves for uses as natural and home remedies for a variety of ailments. 

In Closing

Unfortunately, there has not been extensive research on the history and applications of elderberry in North America. Interestingly, however, it appears that the indigenous people in North America were using the Elder plant for similar purposes and simultaneously with Europe peoples before there was interaction between the two populations.

As documented by researchers Andrea Borchers and Carl Keen, “fortunately, some of the species used medicinally by Native Americans are also native to other parts of the world.” This was beneficial because the European varieties have been studied much more extensively than the North and South American varieties; some of the beneficial chemical components found in European varieties can be extended to North and South American varieties.

1 Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago.
2 Barret, S.A., Gifford, E.W. (1933). Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region. Yosemite Association.
3 Borchers, Andrea; Keen, Carl. (2000). Inflammation and Native American medicine: the role of botanicals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 72, Issue 2, 1 August, 2000. P. 339-347. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/72/2/339/4729391