American elder, common elderberry
Several varieties of this species are found in the Midwest and throughout much of eastern North America. The berries are edible, and although parts of the plant are poisonous, the leaves and bark are used medicinally. Elderberry seeds are found occasionally in the archaeological record, although usually in low numbers.
The stones, or nutlets, of S. canadensis are small (3-5 mm long and 1.5-2 mm wide) and thin (0.7-1.2 mm). The overall shape is an elongated oval, with the hilum at the pointed end. In cross-section, the seed is wedge-shaped. The dorsal surface is slightly convex and the ventral surface is “roof-shaped” (Schoch et al. 1988:35). The surface is rough, with coarse, transverse wrinkles (Schoch et al. 1988:35).
Elderberry seeds are found in many Midwestern archaeological samples. Seeds have been recovered from Late Woodland levels at the Alpha 1 site (Benz 1988), Bridgeton site (Wright 1986), the Fish Lake site (Fortier et al. 1984), and the Little Hill Site (Lopinot 1991). Emergent Mississippian and Mississippian levels at the Bridgeton site (Wright 1986), the Sponemann site (Fortier et al. 1991), the Vaughn Branch site (Jackson et al. 1996), and the Walmart site (Parker 1992) have also yielded Sambucus seeds. Although Sambucus is usually found singly or in pairs, concentrations of up to 21 seeds (Jackson et al. 1996) have been recovered.
The Modern Plant and its Distribution
Common elderberry is a bushy shrub growing four to 10 feet at maturity. Stems, especially younger ones, are hollow with a white, poisonous pith. Leaves are compound with 5-11 ovate or oval leaflets. The shoots, stems, and the unripe berries are poisonous. The white, star-shaped flowers are edible and fragrant, and bloom in early summer. The pusplish-black fruits grow in compoud umbells and are edible after they ripen in late summer. The fruit is described by Brinkman (1974) as a “berrylike drupe containing three to five one-seeded nutlets or stones”. Samples collected by the author in st. Louis, however, had friuts containing only one stone.
Common elderberry occurs in much of eastern North America, ranging from Florida to Oklahoma in the south and Nova Scotia and Manitoba in the North (Steyermark 1963:1418). It is found commonly throughout the Midwest.
Due to the wide range of uses for elderberry, it is not surprising that they are found somewhat frequently in the archaeological record. The use of the flowers and fruit as food is documented both ethnographically and historically. The fruit is made into teas, juices, and wine. The berries are believed to have laxative and diuretic properties, and to help reduce fever. The flowers are also made into tea for fever reduction and for sore throats and stomach upset. The bark and leaves, although poisonous, are used in small quantities as a purgative, and have many uses externally for skin disorders and pain relievers (Angier 1978:115-117; Moerman 1998:511).
Whether the presence of elderberry stones in the archaeological record reflects their value as a food source or as a medicine is difficult to determine. Clearly, their medicinal qualities are widely known and cover a range of ailments.
1978 Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pensylvania.
1988 Rosewood occupation at the Alpha 1 site. In Late Woodland Sites in the American Bottom
Brinkman, K. A.
1974 Sambucus L. Elder. In Seeds of Woody Plants in the United States, edited by C. S.
Fortier, A. C., R. B. Lacampagne, and F.A. Finney
1984 The Fish Lake Site. American Bottom Archaeology FAI-270 Site Reports Vol. 23. Illinois
Fortier, A. C., T. O. Maher, and J. A. Williams
1991 The Sponemann Site. American Bottom Archaeology FAI-270 Site Reports Vol. 23. Illinois
Jackson, D. K., P. G. Millhouse, M. L. Simon, and T. E. Berres
1996 The Vaughn Branch Site. ITARP Transportation Archaeological Research Reports No. 42.
Lopinot, N. H.
1991 Archaeology of the Little Hills Expressway Site (23SC572), St. Charles County, Missouri.
Parker, K. E.
1992 Plant Remains from Archaeological Excavations at the Walmart Site (11MS1369). Submitted
Schoch, W. H., B. Pawlik, and F. H. Schweingruber
1988 Botanical Macro-Remains: An Atlas for the Determination of Frequently Encountered and
Steyermark, J. A.
1963 Flora of Missouri. Iowa State University Press, Ames.
Wright, P. J.
1986 Analysis of Plant Remains from the Bridgeton Archaeological Site. Unpublished M.A. Thesis