Younger Elderberry trees look more like shrubs while mature trees reach up to 30 feet high. Image: iStock/Goldi59.

“I think I see an elderberry down this way.”

It’s a late April afternoon, and I’m with local botanist Dave Flietner. Surrounded by scrub oaks and sages, we make our way down one of San Diego’s urban canyons. Our feet trip over the round stones on the canyon floor.

Past president of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society and owner of Design With Natives, a native plant landscape design business, Flietner looks for black elderberry. For generations, people native to what is now San Diego County brewed a medicinal tea made from the flowers of elderberry.

Flietner spies a lemonade berry tree. We concoct a hiker’s lemonade by placing a few of its rust red berries in our water bottles. The gooey berries slip and slide in our fingers as we pull them from the tree. I shake and take a sip. The pleasant floral aroma and slightly tart lemony taste are refreshing on this hot afternoon.

Lemonade berry. Image: iStock/shakzu.

Not far from the lemonade berry tree we find a black elderberry, which is very green and tall compared to the coastal sage and yerba santa plants surrounding it, We pick several of the elderberry’s large inflorescences of very small white flowers.

Edward K. Balls tells us in his book Early Uses of California Plants,  that Native Americans in Southern California brewed teas from the Ephedra genus, mostly the Nevada jointfir, which is also called Mormon tea. No science backs up their medicinal qualities but the teas were used to remedy kidney ailments, colds, ulcers, stomach problems, and to purify blood. Later, as Spanish settlers learned to use the resources of their new environment, they made drinks and jellies from manzanita berries.

In Healing With Medicinal Plants of the West, authors Cecilia Garcia and James D. Adams Jr. describe a tea brewed to alleviate headaches, colds, sore throat, even malaria that was made from the bark of the arroyo willow, which contains a natural aspirin. The authors caution that some plants used to brew medicinal teas are slow
growing. If you want to use these plants, such as desert tea, they suggest that you buy these plants from a nursery and grow them for your own use. The authors also warn that many of the traditional teas can be dangerous. All of the teas brewed by Native Americans in rites of passage, religious ceremonies, or to “induce sacred dreams” have their dangers. Sometimes participants in these rites and rituals died from ingesting these plants or the teas made from them.

Flietner cautions, “Before you try to find any native tea plants, you should learn about native plants from the California Native Plant Society.”

I feel good that Garcia and Adams say the elderberry tea is safe. Back in my kitchen, Flietner and I pull the creamy white flowers from their stems, put them in an
infuser, and brew. After steeping for around six minutes, the elderberry tea is a rich, golden color. It almost looks like honey.

Delicate elderberry flowers. Image:istock-portishead1.

Unsurprisingly, the flowery brew tastes a lot like chamomile, although a bit bolder. The tea is mildly astringent, with a slightly bitter aftertaste, a bit like kava but without the numbing. We both admit that the lemonade berry drink tasted way better than the tea. Flietner shares that this tea was used by Native Americans to treat colds and flu. They also dried and ate the berries. “There is so much history, beauty, and culture in our native plants here,” he says, taking another sip. “The drinks and teas are just part of that cornucopia that we can enjoy.”

Originally published on ESD Weekly May 26, 2022.

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About the Contributor
Paul Hormick
Paul Hormick is a horticulturist and environmentalist with a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy. As a freelance writer, his interests are in the environment, current events, music, and the arts. He is the author of As We Believe: Conversations of Religion and Faith. Paul lives in San Diego with his wife, Bryna.