Sambucus canadensis L.

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).


Archaeological Distribution

       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.



Agier, B.

    1978   Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pensylvania.

Bentz, C.

    1988   Rosewood occupation at the Alpha 1 site. In Late Woodland Sites in the American Bottom
            Uplands, by C. Bentz, D. L. Mcelrath, F.A. Finney, and R. B. Lacampagne, pp. 107-140.
            American Bottom Archaeology FAI-270 Site Reports Vol. 18. Illinois Department of
            Transportation, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Brinkman, K. A.

    1974   Sambucus L. Elder. In Seeds of Woody Plants in the United States, edited by C. S.
            Schopmeyer, pp. 754-757. Agriculture Handbook No. 450.  Forest Service, U.S. Department
            of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.

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
            Department of Transportation, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Fortier, A. C., T. O. Maher, and J. A. Williams

    1991   The Sponemann Site. American Bottom Archaeology FAI-270 Site Reports Vol. 23. Illinois
            Department of Transportation, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

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.
            Prepared by Contract Archaeology Program, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville,
            Archaeology Program Research Report No. 6.  SIUE, Edwardsville, Illinois.
Moerman, D.
    1998   Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland.

Parker, K. E.

    1992   Plant Remains from Archaeological Excavations at the Walmart Site (11MS1369). Submitted
            to Charles L. Rohrbaugh, Archaeological Consultants, 320 Robert Drive, Normal, Illinois.

Schoch, W. H., B. Pawlik, and F. H. Schweingruber

    1988   Botanical Macro-Remains: An Atlas for the Determination of Frequently Encountered and
            Ecologically Important Plant Seeds. Paul Haupt, Berne and Stuttgart.

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
            in Anthropology. Washington University, St. Louis.

Written by:  Angela Gordon