By: John Latimer
In April the red elderberry buds begin to swell. These are not the first flowers seen in the Northland but they are among the most intriguing. The plant is opposite branched so the flowers are paired along the stem. This puts a mirrored image of each leaf and flower bud right in front of you.
As they begin their development they are peanut sized and bright purple. This makes them pretty hard to overlook along the smooth gray bark of the branches. Depending on the weather they may jump past this phase in a week or less, though in a spring like 2013 they were stuck at this point for two weeks.
As the buds start to crack open revealing the leaf and flower structures beneath, streaks of green bisect the buds. This serves to accent the purple of the bud scales. With continued development the leaves start to separate away from the flower bud. Wispy thin tendrils, somewhat burgundy in color, stretch above the swelling bud.
The leaves are compound like those of the ash trees, and they start to spread their leaflets like fingers around the flower bud beneath. With increased exposure to sunlight the leaves start to photosynthesize, banishing the burgundy, and turning green. Rising up from the center of the bud is the flower. In this early stage of development the flowers resemble a floret of broccoli, except that they too emerge a deep burgundy. The sun will also shift their color to green, but only for a short period. Soon they will start to open and cones of white flowers will cover the entire bush.
Red elderberry shrubs prefer edges or openings within the forest. That doesn’t mean they won’t be found deep in the shade under a canopy of trees. They are a hardy, coarse shrub usually associated with wetter sites, and are found state-wide with the exception of the far western and southwestern counties. The older branches arch back toward the ground and new shoots arise vertically from them. This habit gives them a recognizable look and a practiced eye will locate them with some ease.
From April through July you won’t need to worry about the subtle shape of the bush, starting with the swollen purple buds, followed by the broccoli-like flower buds, then pyramidal clusters of white flowers and finally by the appearance of the bright red fruit, they are hard to overlook. You’re not the only one looking for them however; the birds are watching their development very closely. As the fruits ripen the robins and white-throated sparrows swoop in to dine. Should they not move quickly enough the bears will strip the fruit overnight. Each berry contains three to five seeds and once they pass through the digestive system of whatever animal eats them they will fall to the ground amid a load of fertilizer ready to grow a new plant.
For humans the berries are not edible in the raw state. They must be cooked to remove certain toxins. The roots, bark, wood, and leaves all contain traces of cyanogenic glycosides and should not be eaten at all. The berries can be processed to make jelly and Native Americans cooked the berries down to a primitive form of a fruit roll-up. A sort of fruit leather that modern day back to the land types find not overly palatable. It has been suggested that this paste may have been combined with other fruits to produce something a bit tastier.
Everything I have read about them suggests that perhaps the best use of red elderberries may be as a food for wild animals. Go out and enjoy every stage of their development and when the fruit is ripe stand aside and let nature take her course.
John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work. John appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods. This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Journal. It is printed with the author’s permission.