©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season
By Lillian Vallee

45. The Esteemed Elders

Painting by Barbara RenshawMay is a luscious month in the Central Valley—a time of wild, profuse flowering and seed-making and of mysterious nocturnal rituals of pollination. Along the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers, and along Dry Creek in Modesto, May is drifts of blooming elderberries (Sambucus mexicana/caerulea), their fragrant, cream-colored flowers visible against the dusky green foliage, even in the dark. The elderberry genus has a long history of human use that dates back to at least two millennia: its flowers, fruit, bark and roots have given people food, medicine, musical instruments, and even clothing. The Greek word sambuke means musical instrument made of elder wood, and there is an echo of it in sambuca, a licorice-flavored Italian liqueur made from elderberries. Add to this list of contributions, habitat for native pollinators and for an endangered beetle, and you have a hospitable shrub with an impressive nutritional resume.

Here is a lovely passage on elder by Judith Lowry:

The sweetly fragrant white flower panicles of the blue elderberry, pollinated by bees and other insects, face the sun till the weight of the ripening berry crop causes them to turn over and droop toward the ground. White bloom on the blue black berries makes them appear pale blue, “elderberry blue.” Many people prefer eating them when baked in pies or dried. Elderberries make small, intensely flavored raisins, loaded with polyphenols, those protective plant chemicals associated with plant pigments with which we evolved. The sun seems to sweeten the berries inland, but our coastal blues have a rich, unique flavor and make excellent pies. Many indigenous peoples across the continent ate of the genus’s bounty. Dozens of birds love elderberries, and in some parts of California, mountain quail are expected to come down to the valleys and flatlands when the elderberries are ripe.

And it was not just the quail who observed elderberry undergoing seasonal changes. Kat Anderson writes that Coastal Pomo people would stop “gathering clams and other shellfish as soon as elderberry shrubs flowered. When there were ripe elderberries, they knew it was time again to harvest shellfish.” In season, people made syrups, sauces, preserves, or wine from the berries, and delicious fritters dipped in pancake batter from the flower panicles. “Elderberries,” writes Anderson, “…are loaded with calcium, phosphorus and iron and contain three times the vitamin A found in peaches.”

In a garden, elder can be shaped into a shrub or small tree. It has thirsty roots (no berries without access to some summer water); “smelly” leaves (Glenn Keator writes that they remind some people of peanut butter!) prized for their medicinal value (crush them to relieve insect or nettle stings); and pithy shoots perfect for hollowing into flutes, whistles and clapper sticks. Keator lists California buckeye (Aesculus californica) and redbud (Cercis occidentalis) as good garden companions for elders. In my backyard the elderberry flower clusters compete in extravagance with tall candles of buckeye flowers, pollinated by large native carpenter bees. Here is another passage from Lowry on the habitat value of elderberries:

Shrubs with soft, pithy centers are sought after by many solitary bees, so planting elderberry makes sense, and not just to bees.

The endangered valley long-horned elderberry beetle requires elderberry to survive; its larvae favor the soft interior of elderberry’s twigs, through which they tunnel, leaving good runways that solitary bees can later partition off to make their individual nurseries.

In the West, elderberry is often found on some of the most ancient sites of human habitation and burial. “The flowers, fruit, bark, and roots of elderberry species have been used extensively throughout the world” write Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. “Preparations [were] used for skin conditions, to lower fevers, and treat colds and flu. Recent laboratory and clinical studies show that elderberry fruit extracts are protective against different strains of the flu virus, thus supporting traditional use.” Renowned herbalist James Duke notes that elderberry is currently being studied for activity against HIV.

In poultice, salve, or tea, the elders helped people stay healthy. “Work on the chemistry and pharmacology of elderberry is still preliminary,” write Foster and Hobbs. “The plant is complex, containing bioactive proteins…in varying degrees, depending on the species variety and plant part. Proven biological effects include antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, diuretic, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory, and liver-protective properties.” I looked around my house and found: Elderberry Flower Drink Concentrate (Sweden), Sambucol syrup from Black Elderberry berries (Israel), Elderberry Liquid Extract from the Berry and Flower (California), and the berry or flower in a number of other immune-building herbal complexes.

But what would food and medicine be without music? Donald Culross Peattie observes that the elder’s “pithy stems furnish the country boy with whistle wood.” California Indians harvested stems at specific ages from the “tree of music” for use as flutes (1-3 years) and clapper sticks (1-4 years). Peattie writes that stems were harvested green in early spring, leaves left on, after which “four flute holes were bored with a red-hot stick, but at random, so that no two flutes had the same scale.” Bob Powers describes Tubatulabal men cutting 26-inch sections, poking out the pith with sticks and then cutting six holes in the side. He gives very precise measurements for placement of the holes.

Few sources mention another traditional use of inner elderberry bark: as material for a skirt. Paul Campbell’s book features photographs of Manuela Aguiar wetting and splitting strips of the inner white bark of a Mexican elderberry killed by fire. She assured the author that elderberry was the very best material for this work as the inner bark of willow and juniper became brittle. The skirt adjusted to fit the wearer.

Food, drink, dye, medicine, clothing, music: what more could a “ruderal little tree” do for us?

Sources: M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild; Paul D. Campbell, Survival Skills of Native California; James A. Duke, The Green Pharmacy; Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs, Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs; Glenn Keator, Complete Garden Guide to the Native Shrubs of California; Judith Lowry, The Landscaping Ideas of Jays; Bob Powers, Indian Country of the Tubatulabal.

Basic Entomology
Horticulture Associate, University of California Cooperative Extension

In California, more than 30,000 types of insects are known. In spring, it may seem that most of them are in your backyard. This is because warm temperatures are ideal for many insect lifecycles. After just a few warm days, large populations can hatch and inhabit fruit trees, shrubs and vegetable beds. Aphids, for example, may seem to multiply overnight. Hoplia beetles are another insect frequently seen in the garden, especially on light colored roses.
While trying to eliminate these pests from your garden, remember that other insects live there too, and frequently consume insect pests. The use of insecticides, even organic ones, may have a negative impact on beneficials. Always read labels carefully, and avoid spraying when beneficial insects such as honeybees are active.
The number of destructive insects in general is actually quite small in comparison with those that are beneficial or neutral. Beneficial insects eat pests, pollinate crops and decompose waste material. These insects include ladybugs, preying mantids, spiders, assassin bugs, and ground beetles.
Beneficial insects feed in two ways: predation or parasitism. Predation is the method most gardeners are familiar with, the typical ladybug eating an aphid. Parasitism is not as easy to spot. To find an example, observe that same population of aphids, but look closer. If you see small, round, papery-thin objects with a tiny hole, you’ve spotted an example of parasitism. This remnant was actually an aphid, and is now known as a “mummy.” When it was alive, this aphid was parasitized by a tiny wasp (not the same kind that inflicts a painful sting). The wasp laid an egg inside the aphid, the egg hatched, fed on the aphid from inside, and then crawled out, leaving a small exit hole. To see an example of parasitized aphids, go to the UC IPM website online at: http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/M/I-HO-MPER-AM.001.html
Spiders are another creature commonly found in the garden, and sometimes the house. They are not considered insects, but are classed as arachnids. Spiders are excellent predators and can be very helpful in the garden. Two “spiders” that are often confused are the harvestman (not a true spider) and the cellar spider. To see photos go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/tr33lo/209901246/ and http://www.life.uiuc.edu/ib/109/Insect%20rearing/photos/cellar%20spider.jpg
Both of these creatures are reputed to have poisonous venom, which is not true. The harvestman does not have venom, and the cellar spider’s venom is harmless to humans.
ACTION: I will teach a basic entomology class for teachers and school garden coordinators on Monday, June 16, 2008 from 8:30 am to noon at the Stanislaus County Ag Center, corner of Service and Crows Landing Roads in Modesto in the Stanislaus Building, Rooms H & I, I. The cost of the Class cost is $10 for materials and a light breakfast. Sign up at: http://cestanislaus.ucdavis.edu/Gardening/Offered_Classes.htm. Or e-mail me for information at aschellman@ucdavis.edu

Humane Society welcomes Pew Commission recommendations

A two-year study released by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) concluded that factory farms pose unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and animal welfare. The Commission's recommendations include a phase-out of "the most intensive and inhumane confinement practices," including chaining veal calves by the neck, cramming egg-laying hens in cages where each has less space than a letter-sized sheet of paper, and keeping pigs in metal cages barely larger than their bodies—the three abuses that a pending anti-cruelty California ballot initiative seeks to phase out over the next six years.
The California Secretary of State recently certified the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act for the November ballot. The measure will provide basic protection to animals confined in California factory farms: that they merely be able to turn around and extend their limbs. It is supported by Californians for Humane Farms, sponsored by The Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary and other animal protection groups, family farmers, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, veterinarians and public health professionals.
Experts brought together by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that "Intensive confinement (e.g. gestation crates for swine, battery cages for laying hens) often so severely restricts movement and natural behaviors, such as the ability to walk or lie on natural materials, having enough floor space to move with some freedom, and rooting for pigs, that it increases the likelihood that the animals suffer severe distress."
"Pew's esteemed panel of scientists, veterinary school officials, ranchers, and public officials has emphatically recommended moving away from cages and crates on factory farms, and that's exactly what our proposed ballot initiative prescribes for California," stated Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. "It is cruel and inhumane to confine animals in cages so small they can barely move for nearly their whole lives, nor are these confinement systems good for public health or the environment. The panel's recommendations come at a perfect time as Californians consider this ballot measure."
• Veal crates are narrow wooden enclosures that prevent calves from turning around or lying down comfortably. The calves are typically chained by their necks and suffer immensely.
• California factory farms confine millions of egg-laying hens in barren battery cages that are so small, the birds can't even spread their wings.
• During their four-month pregnancies, thousands of female breeding pigs in California are confined in barren gestation crates—individual metal enclosures only two feet wide. The crates are so small that the animals cannot even turn around.
• In California and across the country, restaurants, producers, and retailers—including Safeway, Burger King, Carl's Jr. and Hardees, Wolfgang Puck, Smithfield Foods, San Francisco State University, and UC Berkeley—are moving away from supporting crates and cages on factory farms.
• According to the industry's own California-based economist, complying with the initiative would cost producers less than one penny per egg.
View the complete report at http://www.ncifap.org