Bryant DeRoy, who is the summer work-study student, is both the photographer and writer for today’s entry. It fits with the white-flowered medicinal plant series, so we’ll interrupt Katherine’s entries today with one of his since it features a species from UBC Botanical Garden.
This photograph of the blossoms of Sambucus racemosa subsp. pubens var. arborescens (Pacific red elderberry) was taken from the Greenheart Canopy Walkway in UBC Botanical Garden’s David C. Lam Asian Garden. Sambucus racemosa subsp. pubens var. arborescens is a member of the Adoxaceae (or muskroot family), which is a relatively small family consisting of only 150-200 species.
There is some controversy and confusion around the use of Pacific red elderberry as a source of food and medicine. The controversy arises because the leaves, bark, stems, seeds and shoots contain glycosides, which produce cyanide. The confusion often occurs because a close relative, the European Sambucus nigra, is more commonly used for food and medicinal purposes. However, despite its toxicity, the Pacific red elderberry has been an important resource for many First Nations along the west coast of North America (including the Chehalis, Hanaksiala, Hoh, Klallam, Makah, Nitinaht, Oweekeno, Quileute, Skagit, Snohomish, and Squaxin).
Eating the fruits raw is typically avoided. Instead, traditional First Nations preparation of the fruits involves steaming on rocks or baking in pits. The cooked berries can then be processed to remove stems and seeds, followed by being wrapped in the leaves of Lysichiton americanus (western skunk cabbage) for future use. The glycosides are heat labile, making them less toxic when cooked. Since the fruits have low levels of pectin, this mash is traditionally combined with other fruits such as blueberries or crabapples (which contain higher levels of pectin) in order to make a jam-like preserve. Also, combining the Pacific red elderberry fruits with other fruits or fish grease (sourced from eulachon) can make them more palatable, due to the tart nature of the berries. The fruits of Sambucus racemosa subsp. pubens var. arborescens contain high levels of vitamin C, which made them especially important as a winter food for First Nations (when other sources of vitamin C were scarce, centuries ago). Even though cooking the berries can make them less toxic, eating high quantities of cooked berries can still induce nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Traditional First Nations medicinal preparations of Sambucus racemosa subsp. pubens var. arborescens included the decoction into teas, poultices and infusions of the leaves, bark and roots. These were (are?) used to treat boils, colds, coughs, pain, arthritis, gastrointestinal issues, and even nervous breakdowns. Boiled leaves were/are also used to shorten pregnancy as well as aiding in childbirth. See Daniel Moerman’s 1998 book Native American Ethnobotany for a more detailed description of use by First Nations.
Additional food uses include infusion of the flower clusters to flavour wines or make tea. There are also reports of the flowers being added to pancake batter as well as being dipped in batter and fried like tempura. I have sampled the latter, and found that cooking did not completely remove the foul odour that is commonly associated with members of the Adoxaceae. Perhaps it is an acquired aroma?