The elderberry, a shrub or sometimes a small tree, dots California oak forests, chaparral, and coastal scrub areas. Between September and May, the tree blooms in clusters of tiny cream flowers. They remind me of the shape of Queen Anne's lace, a lacy wildflower of roadsides.
The number of blooms depends upon weather conditions. Moths flock to the food source of the flowers. The blooms then transform into dark blue berries that are a key source of food for local wildlife.
Elderberries readily create new branches, but at first, they are slender and easily broken. The tree only commits to its new branches after a period of time, when they become tougher and more permanent.
There are three species of elderberry in California: Mexican, blue, and red. The blue and red are found in the northern part of the state, while the Mexican variety is found from central California south to Baja.
They are found sparsely dispersed in a range of landscapes from coastal scrub to oak woodland. However, they are rarely found over 4,500 feet. I have seen them near creeks and trails even here in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area.
According to a small but informative exhibit of native plants at the Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, Native Americans made a split-stick musical instrument from the branches. The description seems to indicate that it was a percussion instrument.
A Greek flute-like instrument called a sambuke provides part of the root, "sambucus," of the Latin name. So the elderberry helps form music as well as its own natural sounds, the wind through branches, berries fallen to the ground.
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