Fun with elderberry: How to use a native plant in flower, fruit and stem

Photos by Tanya Kucak/ Special to the Town Crier
Antonio Flores, above, plays traditional Native American tunes on his elderberry flute. The “blanks” for elderberry flutes are approximately 8 inches long, cut from a dead dry branch.

In the 1944 movie "Arsenic and Old Lace," the elderberry wine served to old gents was spiked with several poisons. If the murderous aunts had simply fed them unripe blue elderberries, or red elderberries, their victims may have felt sick after a while, but they would have lived.

The Blue, or Western, Elderberry native to California is a versatile, fast-growing shrub or small tree that is showy enough for an entry garden yet productive enough for a hedgerow or wildlife garden. It tops out at 25 to 30 feet and spreads almost as wide. Its flat-topped clusters of creamy flowers attract many pollinators and beneficial insects. Adaptable to many soils, Blue Elderberry can thrive in full sun to part shade, and it is drought-tolerant but can also take moderate water.

Native Americans treasured not only Blue Elderberry’s flowers and berries, but also its dry stems, from which they made musical instruments, including clappers and flutes.

At a recent workshop given by Antonio Flores, a couple dozen people ranging in age from 5 to 75 learned how to make an elderberry flute. A docent with the East Bay Regional Parks, Flores learned how to make and play Native American flutes from Ben Cunningham-Summerfield, a Yosemite park ranger whose heritage includes the Mountain Maidu tribe. Flores said he teaches this "little-known skill" - once practiced by all Native American tribes in California - to "keep the art alive."

With modern tools, it took me about an hour to make an elderberry flute. Flores provided 8-inch lengths of dried elderberry stems and modern hand tools. I first removed the soft pith from the center of the stem with long screwdrivers and narrow brushes, making sure the hollow tube was perfectly smooth.

The next step was to make four holes roughly in the center of the flute. The flute can be played from either end, so if the holes are not exactly in the middle, the flute can have two different "voices." I placed each hole so that my thumb could fit in the space between the holes. Finally, I filed the tops of each hole so that my fingers could somewhat nestle into them, and removed the bark from both ends of the flute to create a better mouthpiece.

For most people, getting a sound out of the flute takes patience and practice. Although an occasional student can play it the first day, Flores noted that it took him a few months to get a sound out of his first flute. (I’m still trying.) He showed how to hold the flute and said instead of blowing or vibrating, it takes "a baby’s breath" or "a super-duper soft exhale" to play the flute.

Flores further explained that using dry dead branches of elderberry "gives it new life as a musical instrument." Wood cured for at least six months is dry enough so that it will no longer split.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at [email protected] m

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