Thursday, December 24, 2015

Lessons from the Elderberries

The Los Angeles River near the Narrows is lined with wild elderberry trees. Though the sides of the river are buttressed with concrete, the bottom remains original riverbed. Natural springs bubbling up from beneath make the laying of concrete impossible. The middle of the river is slung with long, narrow islands pinned in place with tall trees and dense bushes.  People live on these islands, by necessity or by design, at least until the winter storms and floods sweep away their encampments, and them, if they do not temporarily relocate themselves.

Once I saw a couple walking two large dogs and a goat on the edge of the river bottom. Three tails wagged as the animals searched for movement in the green. Goats are not allowed in Los Angeles, nor are the roosters that run in a panic ahead of you on some city streets, nor is corn, growing up as enthusiastic as cheerleaders through cracks in the sidewalk. I love these things because they remind me that there is another world running parallel, and sometimes just beneath, the efforts of the City fathers to torture a river into compliance, to tame a street or a people with artificial and sterile, nearly penal, landscaping, hoping that this contrived green and defeated nature will shame us into being orderly, or into staying inside altogether.

It’s the wild in Los Angeles that intrigues me, and those of us who have found little pockets of it cherish it and share it only with our dearest friends. So it is with the elderberries that call at various times throughout the year. In the spring billows of creamy white blossoms, plate-sized umbels, bob heavy in the warming breeze. Who can resist burying their face in this pillow of tiny flowers, slightly licorice-scented, to breathe deeply and arise covered in pollen, like a child discovered by his mother’s face powder?

I take an umbel of flowers here and there, never many, as others know this spot and we need to leave enough to turn to berries in the fall, and enough for the birds who love them as much as we do. I lightly rinse the flowers, detach them from their stems, and add them to cakes and breads. Or I dry them for medicine. The flowers are dusted with their own natural yeast. Peasants used to make a light champagne with only elder flowers and water, and just before bottling they added a little sugar to make bubbles.[1]

It was with great joy that I found elderberries thriving in the Mojave, which I thought too harsh an environment for this tender green. Wild elderberry trees line the hills along Interstate 60 before it merges with the 10. It’s as if they are there to welcome you, to tell you that you are almost home. I planted an elderberry tree on the land out by the military base north of Joshua Tree, on the island on which we live, and it has suffered from the heat and cold and the ripping wind but it has endured. It wants to live there.

The Malki Museum, on the Morongo Indian reservation, has an old elderberry tree in its interpretive garden. They call the elderberry “hunqwuat.” When the elderberry shoots are three or four years old, native Cahilla and Kumeyaay men gathered them to make flutes and clapper sticks. Young women made dye from the berries to color the baskets they would weave. [2] The people also used the blossoms and the berries to treat colds and flus.[3]

In the fall, when the berries have turned dark and will no longer make you sick if you eat them, you may gather them as you would any sweet berry and make pies and pastries, or juice, or dry them for later.

Elderberries mature in the fall, in time for us to take advantage of their antiviral qualities.[4] There are scores of recipes for homemade elderberry syrups and liquors and it is a good habit to make use of these as the days shorten. I encourage you to experiment. I prefer a tart flavor and find the sweetness of the elderberry cloying, so I make oxymels with vinegar and honey; or elixirs, alcoholic tinctures sweetened to go down a little easier.

Europeans and early American colonists made sweet syrups out of elderberries. My favorite herbalists encourage people to incorporate herbs into their daily lives in ordinary ways, not as mysterious and arcane medicines, but as simply as pancake syrup, or a flavoring for homemade sodas. This is as it should be. Herbs want to be common. They want to live in our kitchens.

There is an abiding and wild world that calls to us and it is lined with elderberry, horehound, epazote, lamb’s quarter, and wild tobacco, unruly plants all, busting through the city sidewalks, as well as the desert floor. Life cannot be tamed, and it will come up again through any crack in the concrete, and if there is no crack, it will make a crack. It will rewild. For me, it’s not the making of medicine or the practice of herbalism that heals, it’s the joy in making friends with plants, the joy of bubbling up unrestrained, part and parcel with nature. The plant friends we make, the seeds we collect, the shoots we plant on our desert islands, the herbs we hang and dry, the potions we make and share, remind us that we too, were native and wild somewhere once.



[1] Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers | The Secret of Ancient Fermentation, Stephen Harrod Buhner
[2] Tending the Willd, Native Am Knowledge and the Management of Cal's Natural Resources, M. Kat Anderson
[3] Medicinal Plants Used by Native American Tribes In Southern California, Donna Largo, Daniel F. McCarthy, and Marcia Roper
[4] Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15080016