Sambucus racemosa subsp. pubens var. arborescens

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?

Sambucus racemosa subsp. pubens var. arborescens

9 responses to “Sambucus racemosa subsp. pubens var. arborescens”

  1. Florida Plantsman

    While a student at the University of Florida, I loved to visit the on-campus – Medicinal Plant Garden. It always makes we wonder how many members of traditional cultures perished from sampling/eating toxic plants and even more amazing is how they learned to process these into safe edible and/or medicinal products. Hunger and survival are strong drivers.
    Thanks for this very interesting series.

  2. Wendy McClure

    Where can I learn more about the change in Family for Sambucus?

  3. Old Ari

    What is the relation to the euro elderberry,(Elderberry wine)?

  4. Eleanor ryan

    Thanks for the explanation of food and medicinal use of Red Elderberry. I have often heard the berries could be used in jam. Now I see this is perhaps ify at best. My plant is the Blue Elderberry, does it have similar precautions and medicinal history.? thanks. Wood Nymph

  5. Daniel Mosquin

    Wendy, you can have a look here: Adoxaceae. I can also dig up some scientific paper references. In brief, Sambucus has been the subject of much debate in the past about its placement. What I learned as the Caprifoliaceae has been split up into several families, with Viburnum and Sambucus being reassigned.
    Old Ari, mention is made in the article about European elderberry (Sambucus nigra).
    Eleanor, I’ll ask Bryant to follow that up (though I will say that the taxonomy of blue elderberry has also been confusing; sometimes it is considered closely related to the European elderberry (as in, a subspecies of) whereas other times it is considered its own species).

  6. Ron B

    A Pacific red elder I noticed from the highway on Whidbey Island I determined with my eyeballs to be around 40′ tall, and with a tape got a trunk circumference of 4′ something (don’t remember exactly, now). It had a single trunk and an elevated crown, and became listed as the US National Champion by American Forests.
    Then it died. They probably still list it in their National Register, which will give the dimensions.
    Var. arborescens, indeed.

  7. kathryn corbett

    I am wondering if other species of Sambucus have the same glycoside content. While camping, I have made a delicious wild-tasting slurry for use on hotcakes, etc., by cooking the berries of S. mexicana with a little sweetener. No negative reports from the diners. Is S. racemosa unique in being the only red-berried species?

  8. Pat

    The flowers of Sambucus nigra certainly lack any foul odour, if you are careful to separate the stalks. They make the most delicious cordial. Very similar to muscatel and litchi.

  9. beverley bowhay

    I have dipped the flowers in spring in batter and fried them without any side-effects…quite delicious wildfood

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