Summary of blue elderberry and its traditional use

Kumeyaay name: kepally

Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis)


The blue elderberry is a large, deciduous tree that is native to southern California and northwestern Mexico. There is a fair amount of confusion with the taxonomy of this genus. Many botanists now assert this plant should be considered a sub-species of the more common Sambucus nigra. This tree grows up to 20-30 feet in height and produces showy clusters of blue fruit. The fruit produced from this tree are high in vitamins and antioxidants and are used in many countries for their proposed medicinal value in terms of supporting our immune system. The dark blue or purple pigment in these fruits is used as a commercial dye. It should be noted that the unripe and un-cooked fruits from this genus are toxic due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides and other alkaloids.

The Kumeyaay use the bark of this plant to help heal open wounds and sores. The berries are dried, boiled and eaten. Boiling is sufficient to remove the previously mentioned toxic chemicals. Flowers are boiled and rubbed over aching joints and limbs. The elderberry blossom is also dried and used to brew a tea that alleviates a fever. The bark from blue elderberry is used to produce a skirt worn by women, meanwhile the branches are used in ceremonial blessings.



Fruit cluster of blue elderberry

Photo credit: Curtis Clark assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons