Watersheds Messenger     Fall 2001     Vol. VIII, No. 3     PDF ISSUE


Plants in Peril: Hard Times for Blue Elderberries
By Miriam Austin

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark collected samples of blue elderberries, first described by botanist C. S. Rafinesque in 1838. These "peculiar blue berries" collected near the "Origon Mts" are now known as the common or blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea Raf).

This beautiful and valuable native plant has historically occurred in a variety of habitats, including dry open slopes with gravelly or stony soils and in moist soils along streams and canyon bottoms from the upper Sonoran to Canadian zones.

Native Americans called the blue elderberry the "tree of music." They made flutes from blue elderberry branches cut in the spring and dried with the leaves on.

Wood from the elderberry family was used for arrow shafts and in the manufacture of skewers and pegs. The fruit of blue elderberries is still used for jellies, jams, wines and pies.

Native American medicinal uses of this plant included treatments for sore or swollen limbs; headaches; relief from pain and swelling; and antiseptic washes.

Elderberries are not troubled by many insects or diseases; they may even possess insect repellant qualities. Recent studies indicate that elderberries have antiviral properties that may be useful against influenza and other diseases.

Blue elderberries are highly palatable to wildlife. The ripe fruit is consumed by more than 43 species of birds, including the mourning dove, wild turkey, ring-necked pheasant, northern flicker, band-tailed pigeon and ruffed grouse.

Elderberries also provide fruit or forage (bark, foliage) for deer, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, mice and rats. Its flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

The plants are highly attractive and readily browsed by wildlife. Unfortunately they are also sought out and consumed by exotic ungulates (domestic livestock) in preference to other available forage.

Blue elderberries are so attractive, particularly in arid western regions, that livestock utilization has led to severe impacts and, in some cases, complete extirpation of populations from federal, state and private lands. Many allotments are littered with the remains of once vibrant blue elderberry communities and associations.

One of the few remaining large blue elderberry populations in southeastern Idaho can be found within the recreational portions of main Rock Creek Canyon between the Sawtooth National Forest boundary and the Diamond Field Jack ski area in Twin Falls and Cassia counties. This section is largely excluded from livestock use and has led to significant recovery of the blue elderberry.

In other western locations utilized for livestock grazing, blue elderberries have been virtually extirpated from entire drainages, watersheds and, in some instances, entire mountain ranges. The only exceptions are occasional remnant plants that no longer are able to reproduce.

"Common" plants such as the blue elderberry are often overlooked in management considerations. Yet cumulative impacts lead to the loss of any species, particularly at the local or regional habitat level.

Climatic conditions that allowed many of these plant communities to become established no longer exist, making the re-establishment of lost populations unlikely.

While the blue elderberry is still present in portions of its historic range, livestock have caused extirpation from a significant portion of that historical range.

This loss affects not only the viability of the blue elderberry as a species but also of dependent and obligate wildlife species.

The loss of the blue elderberry may be contributing to severe declines in sensitive wildlife species, particularly neotropical migratory birds.

If livestock continue to utilize arid and semi-arid western habitat, we stand to lose not only our common plant species but also a majority of our western wildlife species.

If our ecosystems, such as those that support blue elderberries and other riparian species, are lost or reduced to vestiges, Bureau of Land Management research estimates we will lose more than 80 percent of all wildlife species in the western United States.

Miriam Austin is a resource specialist and WWP field monitor.

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