Thursday, July 25, 2013

The News on Red Flowering Currant

Early spring flowers of Red Flowering Currant
Continuing my series of traditional food plants that are rarely eaten these days, I turn my attention to Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). While native plant landscapers and restoration ecologists adore this plant for its enormous clusters of soul piercing pink flowers that are capable of transforming winter sodden pessimists into vernal optimists, few people pluck the musky fruit. But just because a berry has some disagreeable qualities, doesn’t mean it has to be relegated to wither away on the bush. This year when sampling this nearly forgotten fruit, I detected some encouraging flavors and set out on a mission to distill the good from the bad. I share now a plant with a remarkable history and hints of contemporary culinary promise.

Large flower clusters
Red Flowering Currant is an upright shrub that grows 5-10 feet tall. Stems lack thorns and have reddish-brown bark. Leaves are 1-2.5 inches wide, alternate, petiolate, with 3 deep lobes and 2 shallow lobes (5 total). The upper surfaces are green and mostly smooth while the undersides are whitish and finely haired. Flowers are pink-red with 5 petals, in racemes of 10-20. It is one of our first bloomers providing brilliant strokes of color to the early spring in March and April. Berries are ovate, 3/8-5/8 inch long and slightly narrower, sparsely covered with short gland-tipped bristles and withered petals. Fruit ripen to a deep purple with a thick white bloom in late July and August. 

Currants with weak bristled fruit
Red Flowering Currant grows abundantly throughout the lands adjacent to the Salish Sea, along both slopes of the Cascades and westward to the Pacific Coast, and southward throughout western California to the Channel Islands. An isolated (and critically imperiled) population occurs near Lake Coeur d’Alene.


David Douglas in 1834, shortly before his death.
The first botanical specimen of Red Flowering Currant was collected by Archibald Menzies, naturalist on Captain Vancouver’s 1792 voyage in the Pacific Northwest (Newcombe 1923). Lewis and Clark also made an early collection on March 27, 1806 from the banks of the Columbia near the mouth of the Cowlitz (Earle and Reveal 2003), and less than 20 years later, explorer-botanist David Douglas encountered Red Flowering Currant in May of 1825 and collected seeds in late July or early August of that year, which he shipped back to his employer, the London Horticultural Society (Douglas 1914). According biographer Jack Nisbet (2012), propagules from Douglas’s Red Flowering Currant seeds were a smashing success among English gardeners, and the proceeds from Red Flowering Currant sales alone paid for Douglas’s entire expedition salary, transportation, and expenses. It remains one of the most popular flowering shrubs in England. The species name sanguineum means "blood-red".

The ethnographic record for Red Flowering Currant is somewhat spotty, partially on account of the confusing diversity of currants and gooseberries that are often listed without descriptive names or features. They were gathered and eaten raw, stewed, or canned for future use by the Hoh and Quileute (Albert 1934). The Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) ate them fresh, dried, or stewed to add flavoring to other food (Turner et al. 1990), and the Vancouver Island Salish occasionally boiled and dried the berries, but more commonly ate them raw (Turner and Bell 1971). The Klallam traditionally ate them raw (Gunther 1927) as did the Warm Spring Paiute (Mahar 1953). The Skagit and the Squamish also occasionally ate them, but evidently they weren’t well liked (Theodoratus 1989; Turner and Bouchard 1976), possibly on account of their bitter/astringent seeds.

A healthy fruit cluster!
Taste aside, Red Flowering Currants are larger and easier to pick than most other mid-summer fruit. I frequently encounter berries that are 5/8ths of an inch long, ½ inch wide, and in clusters of 25-35. Either “milking” currants on the bush, or plucking the entire cluster and stripping the berries off through thumb and fore-finger are efficient means of collecting these currants, and I can pick a pound in 10 minutes at a good site.

Raw, they have mildly sweet flavor and astringent aftertaste with a slightly skunky or musky aroma similar to Stink Currant (Ribes bracteosum). Their texture is superb being neither juicy nor dry and mealy, they have a thick, creamy quality that I enjoy. However, their major downfalls are numerous seeds and persistent flower petals that cling morbidly to each berry. Red Flowering Currant seeds are an annoying size that is too small to easily spit out and too large to easily ignore, they are also astringent (tongue drying) and slightly bitter.

3 pounds of Red Flowering Currant ready to be processed
Straining the seeds
This year I decided to try and strain the seeds out to see if I could improve the quality of the fruit pulp. I steamed the fruit with ½ inch of water in the bottom of a large pot for 30 minutes to soften the skins. As the currants cooked they released a very strong aroma like walnut rinds. I loaded the fruit into my food mill with the standard screen (1/16th inch holes) and started cranking away. Initially the pulp separated beautifully, but soon the seeds plugged up the screen and the flow was somewhat restricted. The pulp came out dark purple with nice thick texture. The seed waste wasn’t as dry as it often is and still had some pulp intact, so I diluted the mash slightly with a little water and ran it through the food mill again, separating the second run into a different container. Towards the end of the second run the auger became completely plugged and seeds were crushed through the screen instead of being pushed out the end.

I ended up with three containers. In the first was my initial batch of Red Flowering Currant pulp, which had a nice smell and decent flavor but a hint of bitterness. The second container held the pulp from the next “pressing” and it definitely had more seeds squished into it because it was too bitter to enjoy, so I threw it out. The last container contained the seeds, which retained the walnut rind aroma. I didn’t even bother tasting them.

While I can’t definitively say that the bitter constituent in Red Flowering Currant is entirely attributed to the seeds, I think my initial experiment provided good clues. If I had a screen attachment with smaller holes (such as the 3/32nd inch "berry screen" sold by Squeezo), it may have done a better job of separating the seeds instead of grinding them through the screen. I also might try pre-mashing the berries and diluting the mash with water so the seeds wouldn’t be as concentrated and the pulp would separate more easily. Whatever course I take, I will definitely stop and clean my screen if it gets plugged up next time.

Cooked pulp spread on tray
Finished fruit leather
I spread my fruit pulp on a dehydrator sheet and dried it for about 12 hours. The resulting fruit leather has a fantastic texture (like store bought fruit leather) and grape/apple-like flavor that has less bitterness than the raw pulp but is still a little astringent. Based on the ease of picking Red Flowering Currants and their great texture, I can see why they were mixed with other fruit to make fruit leather by some Native Americans.


Douglas, David 1914. Journal Kept by David Douglas during His Travels in North America 1823-1827, Together with a Paricular Description of Thirty-Three Species of American Oaks and Eighteen Species of Pinus. Published under the direction of the Royal Horticultural Society, William Wesley & Son, London.

Earle, A. Scott and James L. Reveal 2003. Lewis and Clark’s Green World: The Expedition and Its Plants. Farcountry Press, Helena MT.

Gunther, Erna 1927. Klallam Ethnography. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 1:5

Newcombe, Charles F. 1923. Botanical and Ethnological Appendix to Menzies’ Journal of Vancouver’s Voyage, April to October 1792. King’s Printer, Victoria BC.

Nisbet, Jack 2012. “David Douglas and the Landscape of the Pacific Northwest.” Presentation to Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University, November 9, 2012. View online on Youtube.

Mahar, James Michael. 1953 Ethnobotany of the Oregon Paiutes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Reed College, B.A. Thesis (As cited in

Reagan, Albert 1934. Plants used by the Hoh and Quileute Indians. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, Vol 37.

Theodoratus, Robert J. 1989. Loss, Transfer, and Reintroduction in the Use of Wild Plant Foods in the Upper Skagit Valley. Northwest Anthropological Research Notes 23(1):35-52

Turner, Nancy J. and Randy Bouchard 1976. Squamish Ethnobotany (unpublished manuscript).

Turner, Nancy J., Laurence C. Thompson, M. Terry Thompson, and Annie Z. York 1990. Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Royal British Columbia Museum Memoir No. 3, Victoria BC.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Red Elderberry: Experiment #1

Every year when the Red Elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) ripen, I marvel at their beauty and quantity. Clusters of bright red fruit cascade from black stems and dark green foliage with branch bending abundance. Resembling a northern version of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), they seem better suited to ripening during Christmas-time than the heat of the summer, yet ripen they do by the first hot days of summer. It is hard to ignore a wild edible that grows so commonly as Red Elderberry, but most wild food books caution against eating the berries, despite traditional use by nearly all the Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest. On several occasions I have cooked and sampled the fruit, but until recently, my enthusiasm never lasted beyond a tentative taste of the cooked fruit. This year, however, I resolved to carry my experiments through to completion, and what follows is the first in a series of attempts to try and crack the palatability secretes of Red Elderberry. But first, a little background:

The genus name Sambucus comes from the Latin word sackbut or more properly, sabb’ka, which was the name of a little known ancient Aramaic stringed instrument supposedly made from elderberry wood ( 2013). In the middle ages, the word was also used to describe a wind instrument made from hollow elderberry stalks (Wikipedia 2013). The species epithet racemosa refers to the clustered flowers. Red Elderberry wood is used for flutes, funnels, and bows. The flowers and fruit are cooked and eaten or made into wine or syrup. While the roots, bark, and leaves are poisonous, they have medicinal value in small doses as emetics. The fruit have been used for centuries by numerous cultures as an herbal remedy for rheumatism, which may explain the common name “elderberry.”

Opposite buds emerging from a second year twig
Cone-shaped Red Elderberry flower clusters
Red Elderberry is a woody perennial forming bushes that are 12-20 feet tall. Young stems grow quickly, often 1-2 feet per year and have hairless to sparsely hairy green bark with white warts (lenticels) in the early season and darkens to tan-purple with grey-orange warts by fruiting time. The bark assumes a grey-brown color with the passing years and the warts grow larger until the bark loses all signs of smoothness in old age. Stems have a pithy core that makes the wood brittle when young but as the stem ages the outer wood increases thickness while the pith remains nearly the same size, making older branches considerably stronger than younger ones. Leaves emerge from large yellow-green to purple-red buds comprised of several pairs of large scales. Leaf scars are connect around the circumference of the twig. Leaves are pinnately compound with 5-7 lanceolate leaflets that have acuminate tips and serrated margins. Small white flowers are born in upright to drooping cone shaped clusters (panicles) in April and early May. The fruit changes from green to orange, ripening to a bright red by the end of June. Berries (drupes) are about 3/16” wide, spherical to egg-shaped, with 2-5 seed (nutlets) that are up to 1/8” long and 1/16” wide. Red Elderberries thrive in our moist mild climates throughout nearly all of the forested Pacific Northwest. Look for them in forests and forest margins from sea level to subalpine.

Flat-topped Blue Elderberry flower clusters
Red Elderberry can readily be distinguished from Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) by its flowers and fruit. The flowers and fruit of Red Elderberry are in cone-shaped clusters whereas those of Blue Elderberry are flat-topped. Red Elderberry also flowers in the spring and fruits in the summer whereas Blue Elderberry flowers in the summer and fruits in the fall. For those that like to test their wintertime elderberry identification skills, notice that the young stems of Red Elderberry are purplish grey whereas those of Blue Elderberry are orangish grey.

Red elderberries were traditionally harvested and processed for food by virtually all the Native American groups throughout the plant's range in the Pacific Northwest (Gunther 1945; Turner 1995) for several thousands of years (Losey et al. 2003). Berry laden branches were bent to the ground using hooked sticks and entire berry clusters were broken off and placed in baskets. When several baskets were full, the berries were stripped off of their stems and steamed or boiled in bentwood boxes, small canoes, or skunk cabbage lined pit ovens for several hours. The cooked berries were then spread out onto skunk cabbage leaves to dry above a hot fire or in the sun to make berry cakes (fruit leather), which was often stored until the winter before being consumed (Boas 1921; Gill 1984). Though abundant, elderberry fruit was considered second rate and was often mixed as a bulking agent with better tasting berries. During the historic period many Native Americans steamed Red Elderberries in steel pots, sweetened the fruit with sugar, and canned them in glass jars (Turner 1995). Red Elderberries are very seedy and the Kwakwaka’wakw, who generally believed it was rude to drink water during or directly after a feast, made an exception for Red Elderberries so that people could rinse the seeds out of their mouth (Boas 1921, pgs 564-566). Today few people eat Red Elderberries on account of their slightly bitter-pungent flavor.
More elderberries than we know what to do with!

Removing the stems
De-stemmed fruit
Simmering fruit
This year, the first Red Elderberries began to fully ripen in the middle of July. Katrina and I plucked off entire berry clusters and quickly filled two grocery bags. We put our berries in the freezer for a couple days with the hope that the frozen stems would come off more easily (which is the case with Blue Elderberry). Unfortunately, the frozen Red Elderberry stems turned out to be brittle, so we allowed the berries to thaw before removing the stems[1]. Once all the stems were removed we boiled the fruit in a pot with 1 cup of water until the fruit began to juice, and then reduced the juice on low heat for several hours until the pan began to dry out. Then we ran the berries through a fruit mill to separate the seeds from the pulp. The abundance of seeds caused the fruit strainer to bind, so I loosened the screen to allow more space between the auger and the screen. Approximately ¼ of the seeds were crushed into meal and pushed through the screen but we did our best to separate the seed meal from the pulp. I wasn’t keen on eating the seed pulp as some studies suggest that the toxic compounds are concentrated in the seeds. Archaeological recovery of aggregations of elderberry seeds suggests that Native Americans were removing the seeds, but aside from spitting them out at the time of consumption (Boas 1921, pg. 566) a mechanism for removing the small seeds isn't known (Losey et al. 2003). After all the fruit was pulped we sweetened half with ½ cup of brown sugar, and left the other half unsweetened before spreading the pulp onto food dehydrator sheets and dehydrating them for 12 hours. 


Straining the seeds
Our finished fruit leather is a dark purple with a flexible nature and oily texture. While the flavor isn’t great, it is much better than my previous, halfhearted experiments. Initially, the flavor is nice but the aftertaste has a difficult-to-describe pungency that I don’t like. We packaged and froze the fruit leather in the hope that the flavor will improve with storage, which isn’t an unreasonable suspicion given the pervasiveness of this practice among Native Americans.

Finished Red Elderberry fruit leather
My fruit leather will mellow in the freezer for several months, but I have already been plotting my next Red Elderberry experiment. Besides storage, a few ethnographies also mention soaking the cooked fruit in water, and I want to see if the water removes the disagreeable flavors. While working with the Puyallup and Nisqually, Marian Smith (1940, pg. 148) noted that after Red Elderberries were boiled they were, “put into loosely woven baskets which had been well lined with maple leaves. The basket was carefully covered with the same kind of leaves and submerged in a running stream. It took about a month for the berries to cure and be ready to eat. When finished they formed a thick paste ‘as yellow as butter.’ After the basket was opened it had to be kept in the water and the paste was used regularly until it was gone.” Contrary to other ethnographies that ascribe marginal flavor to Red Elderberry, Smith goes on to say “Elderberry paste was mixed with other dried berries to heighten their flavor.” Albert Reagan (1934, pg. 56) documented a similar method of storing (or treating?) Red Elderberries among the Hoh and Quileute. He wrote, “The cooked product is wrapped in skunk-cabbage leaves and buried in the muck in some swampy place, to be dug up when needed.” Edward Curtis (1913) also recorded this practice among the Quinault who "steam-cook them, surrounded in the pit by skunk-cabbage leaves, pour them into hemlock-bark boxes, and then submerge the receptacles in the water of a shallow creek, where they were preserved indefinitely." While cool temperatures and low oxidation rates in submerged environments provide the most likely explanation for this practice, it is conceivable that water storage was a desirable means of leaching out bad tasting constituents in the cooked berries, or slightly fermenting the fruit.

Water storage of Red Elderberries was also practiced in other parts of the Pacific Northwest. According to elders interviewed by Nancy Turner and Randy Bouchard (1976, pg. 81) the Squamish also stored Red Elderberries in water. The berries were cooked until they formed a “molasses-like mass” and placed in a special red cedar basket called tl’pat which was anchored underwater. When the berries were needed, they were pulled up, the required amount removed, and the remainder re-submerged. August Jack concisely describes the process in an interview with Major Mathews (1955, pg. 10): “Elderberry put in sack, you know Indian sack; put sack in creek so clean water run over them and keep them fresh. By and bye get sack out of creek, take some berry out, put sack back again (also quoted in Turner and Bouchard 1976).” The Skagit similarly employed this method, as described by McCormick Collins (1974, pg. 57), “the women might preserve [Red Elderberries] by wrapping them in maple leaves and putting them in a hole dug in wet sand.”  The Kwakwaka’wakw produced also an elderberry paste by soaking the cooked elderberries, but rather than storing the berries in water for several weeks, dried berries were only soaked in water for the duration of four winter ceremonial songs, at which point they were mixed into a paste by hand, and eaten (Boas 1921).

For my next Red Elderberry experiment, I will emulate the more recent traditional method of preparing Elderberries and can the cooked berries.

Warning: The roots, wood, bark, leaves, and to a lesser extent, the raw flowers and fruit of Red Elder berry contain cyanogenic glycosides and should not be eaten (Turner and Szczawinski 1991). 


Boas, Franz 1921. Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, based on data collected by George Hunt. Bureau of American Ethnology, 35th Annual Report, part 1. 1913-14. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

Collins, McCormick J. 1974. Valley of the Spirits, the Upper Skagit Indians of Western Washington. Monograph 56, the American Ethnological Society, University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Curtis, Edward 1913. The North American Indian, Vol 9: The Salishan Tribes of the Coast.

Curtis, Edward 1915. The North American Indian, vol 10: The Kwakiutl. Accessed July 15, 2013.

Gill, Steven 1984. Ethnobotany of the Makah People, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Paper presented to the 7th Annual Ethnobiology Conference, Seattle WA.

Gunther, Erna 1945. Ethnobotany of Western Washington, the Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Losey, Robert L, Nancy Stenholm, Patty Whereat-Phillips, and Helen Vallianatos 2003. Exploring the use of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) fruit on the southern Northwest Coast of North America. Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol 30.

Mathews, Major J.S. 1955. Conversations with Khahtsahlano, 1932-1954. Compiled by the City Archivist, Vancouver BC.

Reagan, Albert 1934. Plants used by the Hoh and Quileute Indians. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, Vol 37.

Smith, Marian 1940. The Puyallup-Nisqually. Columbia University Press, New York NY.

Turner, Nancy J. 1995. Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. UBC Press, Vancouver BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Adam F. Szczawinski 1991. Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America. Timber Press, Portland OR.

Turner, Nancy J. and Randy Bouchard 1976. Squamish Ethnobotany (unpublished manuscript).

Wikipedia search “elder mother” Accessed July 15, 2013.

Wikipedia search “elderberry folklore” Accessed July 15, 2013.

[1] According to Edward Curtis (1915, pg. 40) the Kwakwaka’wakw did not remove the stems before cooking Red Elderberries. Rather, they cooked the fruit until it was soft enough to easily separate the stems.
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