The Forest in September
As August fades to September, summer cedes to the season of harvest. So, too, do we see the fruits of the summer sun in our Northeastern forests! Grapes, blackberries and elderberries, among the more palatable fruits, are ripe for the picking. Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis or Sambucus nigra subsp. Canadensis) in particular, with their large cluster of deep blue-black berries, offer us not only something culinary, but medicinally useful as well!
Elderberry (or Elder) is native to North America as well as Europe (as different subspecies), and used in many cultures and culinary traditions. It is important to note that only the ripened berries and flowers are edible, as the rest of the plant and the unripened berries are poisonous. In the U.S., these berries are typically used in jellies and jams, pies, and turned into wine. The flower petals can also be eaten or turned into a tea. We use elder flowers in bitters, in popular liquors, and lightly battered and fried into elderflower fritters. In Europe, the flowers have been used to make wines and liquors as well as sodas, syrups, cordials and even a German soup called Fliederbeersuppe. The berries themselves are high in vitamin C and a good source of iron, potassium, fiber, and vitamins B6 and A.
Elderberries and other parts of the elder plant have been used in traditional medicines on both continents for immune support, respiratory function and associated cures. This plant has been found in multiple studies to reduce the severity and duration of both influenza and the common cold in otherwise healthy individuals. There is some evidence for extracts of Sambucus showing antiviral and antimicrobial properties, though more study in this area is needed. Most doctors recommend supplementing medicinal care regimens with elderberry until further research confirms the plant's efficacy.
Other historic uses of the plant include using the berries for dye, and the hollow stems used for blowguns, flutes and the like.
In Black Rock Forest, this riparian and forest edge plant provides much needed late-season forage for a variety of animals, including bears, game birds and small mammals. It is a significant late-season dietary component for migratory songbirds before migration. The plants themselves provide cover for smaller animals and nest substrate during the summer months.
During your next September stroll, take notice of this plant laden with large beautiful berry clusters, and consider its value not just to the human world, but to the forest itself.