Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Utah’s mountains are abundant with berry-producing shrubs that provide a veritable bounty of food for wildlife. As summer winds down and fall cedes to winter, many birds and mammals try to feed as much as possible to store energy for migration, hibernation, or even just surviving the cold.
One of the most abundant berry-producing shrubs in Utah’s moist mountain canyons is elderberry, the most common species of which is Sambucus glauca, the blue elderberry. Its multiple tall, thick stems and large compound leaves are unmistakable.
Elk and deer enjoy browsing the stems of elderberry, but its primary value to wildlife comes from its berries. Dense, umbrella-shaped clusters of flowers blossom in early summer, turning into heavy drupes of dark purple berries in late summer through fall. Ripe elderberries can even be found into late October, providing an important food source for birds and mammals.
Wildlife aren’t the only animals that enjoy eating elderberries- humans have harvested them for centuries. In the middle Ages, elderberry was a holy tree, and cutting or burning the wood was thought to bring bad luck. Native Americans have made great use of elderberries as a food source, usually preserving them by drying. Elderberry wood was often used in basketry, as arrow stems, and for making flutes. Today, people harvest elderberries for a variety of uses, including jams, syrups, pies, and wine. Even the white flower clusters can be dipped in batter and fried, or made into an aromatic tea. It is important to note, though, that purple elderberries are mildly poisonous in their unripe state, usually causing nausea, until fully ripe and then cooked or dried. The red elderberries from other species are toxic and should not be eaten.
Not only do elderberries make delicious syrup and jam, but they also have particularly healthy properties. Various experimental and clinical trials have suggested that syrup or juice from elderberries has effective antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral benefits. In fact, elderberries seem particularly helpful in fighting the flu virus.
So, I’ll be sure to think of that healthy little chipmunk slumbering away, or that brave, hardy chickadee out in the snow while I’m enjoying elderberry maple syrup on my pancakes this winter.
For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.
Images: Copyright 2013 Mark Larese-Casanova
Text: Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program
at Utah State University Extension.
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Lauritzen, R.D., and C.M. Johnson. (1992). Elderberries. Utah State University Cooperative Extension Newsletter FN 252. https://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/fn_252.pdf
Stevens, M. 2001. Plant Guide for common elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. Canadensis (L.) R. Bolli.USDA-National Resources Conservation Service, National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf
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