Scattered in the canyons and creekbeds of the Tehachapi area is a shrub whose purplish-blue berries have been eaten by people for several thousand years.
The plant is elderberry, a tall shrub often found growing in riparian (streamside) habitats among the willows and cottonwoods. Sometimes reaching 10 or 15 feet tall, elderberry plants produce fragrant but tiny cream-colored blossoms in flattened arrays on the tops of stems.
As spring and then summer progresses, these blossoms mature into drooping clusters of elderberries. Though tart and even smaller than peas, the little berries have substantial flavor in them. They are consumed by a wide variety of birds, including both California and Mountain Quail, and by mammals including foxes, coyotes, squirrels, bears and more.
The Nüwa (Kawaiisu) Indians of the Tehachapi area call the elderberry plant Ku-nu-guv and the berries themselves Ku-nu-gu-vu’iv. The Nüwa traditionally harvested lots of elderberries in late summer, either eating them raw or cooking the fruit down into a jam-like consistency. The fruit could also be added to staple foods like wi’ib (acorn) or tuva (pine nuts).
The settlers who arrived in the 1850s also made use of the elderberries, extracting the juice from them and adding sugar to make jelly or even wine.
Many years ago I was taught by my neighbor, Tootie Anderson (my canning and preserving mentor) how to make elderberry jelly. She uses a steam juicer bought from the Burpee seed catalog to separate the juice from the stems and seeds. The bright red juice is then cooked with sugar, lemon juice and some pectin to yield the delicious elderberry jelly, which is perfect on biscuits.
Although the berries appear fairly dark, the juice they produce is actually very bright red, like pomegranate juice. It is quite sour unless sweetened with honey or sugar, but the jelly that it produces has the sweet taste of the Tehachapi mountains.
Summer is fast slipping into autumn, the harvest season, so get ready for Tehachapi apples, pears and other fruit. And remember the wild harvests that have sustained and nourished local residents for hundreds of years.
Have a good week.