This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stems woody, two to eighteen feet high, the bark warty; leaflets five to seven, ovate lanceolate, downy underneath; cymes panicled; fruit bright red, rarely white. (Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. See also Chapman's Flora of the Southern United Stales, and Wood's Class-Booh of Botany.)
IT is remarkable that the woody plants of our country and the woody plants of Europe often have a particularly close relationship. Thus the American sweet Chestnut, the American white Birch, and others, have representatives in Europe so closely allied that some botanists hardly regard them as distinct species. Our Red-berried Elder is a good illustration of this. There is a red-berried Elder in some of the mountains of Europe long known as Sambucus racemosa; and though Michaux regarded our plant as distinct, and therefore gave it the name of Sambucus pubens, the botanists of our time seem disposed to regard it at best but a mere variety, and so write of it as Sambucus racemosa, variety pubens. The older name, racemosa, was suggested by the inflorescence being drawn out instead of forming a flat umbrella-like head, as in the common elder; and in like manner pubens is from the fact that the American Red-berried Elder which Michaux had, was more downy in the leaves than the Red-berried form in Europe. But in some parts of our country forms are found as smooth as the European, so that this distinction, as it struck Michaux, is of little moment. But there are other characters which seem to separate the plants of the two countries constantly, as may be observed when they are growing side by side. The inflorescence is less racemose in ours, that is to say the bunch of flowers is less drawn out; the flowers individually have a pinkish tinge in their early stage, becoming pure white only on complete expansion; and the berries are smaller than the European; while the bark has a rough, warty character, apparently wholly wanting in the European form. How far these characters may lay claim to the distinction of being specific depends on the views of different botanists, some giving plants distinctive botanical names on more slender distinctions than others, so that what one would regard as a mere variety another would class as a distinct species.
Sambucus, as applied to the Elder, is a very old name, being found in the works on Natural History of Pliny the Elder, whose curiosity as a student of nature led to his death by an eruption of the volcano of Mount Vesuvius, seventy-nine years after the birth of Christ. It is not quite clear why the plant was called Sambucus. The Greeks had a stringed instrument called Sambuka, the exact construction of which is unknown in these days; and, from the similarity in the names, it is supposed that the wood of the Elder was used in the construction of the instrument. The wood is very hard and bone-like. It has a very large pith, which, when removed, makes the hollow tube sought for by boys who delight in "pop-guns." Butchers use the wood for skewers, and the pith has its use in the toy-making art.
Many singular stories cluster about the different kinds of Elder trees. Though the popular mind has settled on a leguminous tree - Cercis - as the "Judas tree," some ancient authors regarded the Elder tree as the one on which the remorse-stricken apostle hung himself; and this probably is the foundation of many superstitions which have existed among the people of Europe up to a very recent date. A dwarf form in England is known as " Dane-wort," from its being supposed to have sprung from the blood of Danes. Wherever they fought and bled, the dwarf Elder is supposed to have sprung up and marked the spot. On the battle-field in Worcestershire, in England, where the first conflict occurred between the Royalists and the Parliament, under Cromwell, there is a large quantity which the popular mind supposes to have sprung from the blood shed on that occasion.
The berries of the common black Elder are believed to be poisonous to birds and poultry. It is at least singular that they seldom seem to touch them, while those of our Red-berried species are eagerly sought for and greedily devoured. On the cultivated plants, from which our drawing was made, they were all eaten one year, before quite colored; and the next season, the bunch which our artist had before him was only secured by having a gauze net placed over it.
In our country it grows only on mountains or in high elevations, and it is so essential a part of the scenery that it is soon missed when absent. Pursh, in his Journal of a tour through the Northern States, struck by its absence in the Pokono, quaintly remarks: "Though the country being so very high, I did not observe the Sambucus pubens common to such places." In its greatest beauty the writer of this has seen it as, in the lan-o-uacre of Whittier, he " Looked down the Apalachian peak On Juniata's silver streak " beyond the Susquehanna in the mountains of Pennsylvania, where in June it is in full fruit, when the common American Elder is coming into flower; and there the berries remain on for a month or more, till, in the words of the same poet,
"------autumn's rainbow-tinted banner
Hangs lightly o'er the Susquehanna; " the birds perhaps having enough and to spare. In the Rocky Mountains, along Clear-creek Canon,
" Where the spray of the cataract sparkles on high,
Hurrying down to its grave, the sea,
And slow through the rock its pathway hewing! Far clown through the mist of the falling river, Which rises up like an incense ever, The splintered points of the crags are seen, With water howling and vexed between, While the scooping whirl of the pool beneath Seems an open throat, with its granite teeth " in just such a piece of scenery as this from Whittier's description of the Merrimac, the writer once saw it in surpassing beauty. It was from this spot that the seeds were obtained which furnished plants for the illustration here given. The berries are scarcely as large as when growing in its Rocky Mountain home, or perhaps as generally seen in high mountain ranges. It is usually found in the high mountainous ranges of the continent. Mr. Hall found it in Oregon, though rather rare, and, as he says, only in "thickets about the lower cascades," indicating here also the spray-loving habit already noted in connection with its Rocky Mountain home. In Utah Mr. Watson found it in the Wahsatch Mountains at elevations of from six to nine thousand feet. Brewer and Watson, in the Botany of the Californian Geological Survey, note it as being found in the mountain woods of that State, extending northwardly even to Alaska. In the Atlantic States it extends southwardly along the Alleghenies to North Carolina, which seems about the most southern point it has reached in the eastern part of our territory; as Oakland, California, seems to be in the west.
1. Warty branch of last year.
2. Branch with unexpanded flower buds.
3. The same in fruit.
4. Expanded flower slightly magnified, giving a full-face view.
5. Side view of the same, showing the insertion of the anthers, and recurved petals.