The elderberry plant reminds us to celebrate our Elders. We celebrate their love for us, the healing power of their knowledge passed down from generation to generation, and the fragile elderberry blossoms we harvest in the spring.
Being around our Elders is good medicine, which is one of the things that makes our Celebration an event we look forward to. But some of our hearts are heavy because our Elders have “walked into the forest.” Even though they’re gone, we can still be present with them and their teachings. Two of those teachings are to share with Elders and make the time to take an Elder harvesting. Though spring and summer are celebratory times, I miss harvesting for and with our Elders, like Wrangell’s Marge Byrd, who’s walked into the forest. Whenever I’m out harvesting, I remember Marge. A favorite harvesting T-shirt I wear has her frog crest on it though that’s not my clan crest. Marge gave me permission to wear the frog crest years ago. She did this, she told me, so I will always remember how much she loves me. It’s my go-to shirt for harvesting our traditional foods and medicines.
The Lingít word for elderberries is yéil’. Sambucus racemose is the scientific name. Red elderberry is a bush that can grow up to twenty feet tall. In the spring, tiny, cream-colored flowers grow in a cluster and the leaves are oval-shaped. Later, about the beginning of July, small bright red berries appear. Because the elderberry bush grows in easily accessible areas like yards and beside driveways, it’s easier to take Elders on harvesting excursions. If you take an Elder, find a good comfortable spot to do the tedious work of separating the flowers from the stems and spend the time talking and telling stories with each other. Harvesting elderberry blossoms is monotonous, which can also be mediation. Harvesting is healing.
Elderberry blossoms are at the perfect picking stage around the first part of May and later in higher elevations and Southeast communities farther north. They’re best when they’re loaded with pollen and will be not as therapeutic or flavorful after it rains. The elderberry’s flavor varies from year to year, depending on the tree you’re picking and what part of the harvesting season you’re picking in. The best time for harvesting elderberry blossoms is when you have several days of sunshine in a row. Also, I never harvest just one thing and because dandelions are flowering at the same time, I harvest both elderberry flowers and dandelions.
You really have to trust who makes you red elderberry jelly and syrup. There’s cyanide in the stems, root, bark and seeds. I harvest only from wild elderberry bushes. I remove each flower individually to avoid getting any bark at all. A small amount of the stems, bark, seeds or fresh berries can upset your stomach. A large amount can kill you.
Every spring, I’m reminded it’s time to educate beginning harvesters. Also, it’s the same time of year Facebook reminds you of your Elders. I sure do miss Vida Davis. She was so kind to me. She was always talking to me in Lingít on Facebook, sending me memes and words of encouragement. She would tell me that she loved my harvesting posts since she wasn’t able to get out to do those things anymore. Vida was born in the 1930s in Alaska when most of our communities didn’t even have electricity, and yet she eventually learned to use Facebook and send emails. I miss Vida, her stories, her smile and her laugh.
Some of the lessons I teach new harvesters about the elderberry plant, are that it’s important to make sure all the stems are off the berries before you cook them. Then you have to take out all the seeds. Some people boil them to extract juice or use a berry steamer. Red elderberry is a rare jelly flavor, but it’s yummy.
Many Southeast Alaskans drive or walk by the red elderberry bushes, and do not consider the plant’s deliciousness or medicinal uses, perhaps recalling that they learned elderberries were poisonous. Elderberry blossoms are one of the first spring scents to fill our neighborhoods and they’re one my favorite plants to harvest. Their smell and taste are unique. My friend, Naomi Michalsen, says it’s all about the pollen, and it really is. In years when there’s a lot of pollen, the blossoms are thick and rich with scent and flavor.
It’s tedious to pick and prepare elderberry flowers, but the results are worth it. Drying is a way to preserve them for later that works well. You can dry the tiny flowers to use for teas and make syrups and jellies and even kombucha. From the berries (with seeds removed) you can make ketchup, barbeque sauce, or other meat sauces.
I prefer the flavor of fresh elderberry flowers over the dried. But there’s such a short window of opportunity to get them that drying is useful. Of note, when making red elderberry jelly, cooking the berries gives off a deceptively awful smell, but the syrup and jelly you make from it is wonderful. Elderberry teas, syrups and jellies can be blended with other flavors. One of my favorites is chaga/elderberry jelly. Here are some blends I’ve experimented with: lilac, rose, dandelion, pineapple weed, clovers, honeysuckle, fireweed, spruce tip, hemlock tip, strawberry, blueberry, salmonberry, currants…. You get it! Elderberry blends well with many of our local edible flowers and berries. On my wild and crazy Friday nights, I’ve made chaga/elderberry/red salmonberry soda. Yum! And on weekend mornings I’ve made gluten-free cornbread waffles with a salmonberry/elderberry/chaga syrup. Eating our foods growing on Tlingit Aaní is one way to celebrate our heritage, our way-of-life, and honor the teachings of our Elders.
Even though I celebrate these seasons in the year of the Celebration event held in Juneau, I also consider what we humans have gone though and are still going through. These are the years that the Elders of the world died. Harvesting for Elders makes me wish there was an Elders traditional foods bank in every community in Alaska. Maybe this could be one of the goals of our indigenous communities. I love hanging out with my Elders in the various Southeast Alaskan communities and I’m grateful when they take the time to teach me. I’d like to help pay them back.
So together, dear reader, let’s celebrate the elderberry and the Elders and the moments your Elders say, “Well done.”
One of my mentors, Marie Olson, said: “I love reading your articles. They are like a breath of fresh air. You are a good writer and a good teacher.”
The awards for this Planet Alaska column and accolades for my work mean so much more coming from an Elder. So, when you’re eating elderberry jelly on pilot bread, or sipping elderberry tea, or taking a spoonful of medicine made from elderberry blossoms, consider all the love that’s gone into learning from our Elders, how we harvesters are like each fragile flower, handpicked with love.
• Yéilk’ Vivian Mork writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska appears twice monthly in the Capital City Weekly.