Elderberries and other wild delectables:
I am just now picking my first harvest of elderberries. Sambucus, or American Elder, is native here, and I pulled up a few wild plants along the San Gabriel two years ago (not endangered) and now have a nice patch of them. You can also order them from most nurseries that sell fruit trees. Many people do not even know that elderberries are edible, but boy, the birds know! So do the Europeans! They make elder syrup from the blossoms, as well as cordials, and everybody has heard of elderberry wine. There are even elder flavored marshmallows in France, and an elder flavored soft drink made by Fanta and sold throughout Europe. We are missing out! To try it out, make some jelly out of the berries. I love elderberry jelly, and there's a recipe in every box of pectin at your local grocery store. The stems, leaves and unripe berries are poisonous in quantity with a glycocide in them that produces cyanide in the body, (much like apple seeds or apricot pits) but the black ripe berries do not contain any, nor the flat, large white blossom heads. The berry juice is healthful ,and elder syrup is supposed to be a good natural antidote for the flue. Elderberries are the easiest of all berries and fruits to harvest. All you have to do is cut off the large heads full of purple black tiny berries the size of a BB. Hold the heads over a bowl and the berries will rub right off. I think that most people do not know that elderberries are good because the raw berries do not taste like much. They are not acidic at all, but absolutely bland. Just add some lemon juice and cook them according to your recipe, and you'll discover a delightful dessert. Elderberries are a small tree or tall shrub. Mine grow about 5 foot high,and do best in rich soil and plenty of sun, but they will take a few hours of shade all right. They survive drought just fine, but like all berries, to have juicy berries you will need to water them once-in-a-while if it doesn't rain for several weeks. They have few known diseases or pests, except for hungry birds. Elderberry shrubs are also a host for numerous beautiful moths, including the Emperor Moth. Among other natives you could enjoy making jelly with, are mesquite beans. Although it doesn't sound too appetizing, a friend gave us a gift of some, and it was truly delicious. It's a nice golden color, and tastes like a combination of apple and honey. If no one told me any different, I would have thought is was made of some sort of delicious tasting apples. You collect the beans green, and boil them whole in a little water. Then you strain the pulp, add sugar, and make the jelly from the juice with pectin. The mesquite bean is a native food for many animals, including cows. I am told they prefer mesquite beans over good grass! Now I know why. Another southern native is prickly pear. I've never done it but, you can use the pears to make a beautiful pink juice that makes a delicious jelly that supposed to taste something like a cross between watermelon and bubblegum. It sounds like something the kids would love! A Hispanic traditional dessert is to use the prickly pear syrup on cakes and in refreshing drinks like lemonade. There are recipes on the internet for all of these things with pictures and hints to ensure success. The prickly pears need special attention as you have to use heavy gloves to scrape off all the tiny hair thorns and peel the pears. Only the core of the pear is used to cook into pulp to make into juice. The one fruit around here that most people know about besides dewberries are Mustang Grapes. Now these native grapes produce the most delicious purple grape jelly ever, and talk about production! Some friends of ours planted one vine on the fence that went in front of their property of several acres. It covered the whole fence and last year, even though we suffered a severe drought, the vine was covered with juicy, delicious berries without ever being watered. Local people know to use gloves to pick the fruit, because it is so acidic it can cause you to break out in a rash. You won't need any lemon juice with this fruit! The problem is that often it won't easily jell, so when you make your jelly, make small quantities, and use less water with extra pectin. One vine will make enough fruit for several families. On a good year you'll have to donate the extra fruit to a church group. Planting them on a fence is a good idea because they can grow 40 foot up into a big tree where you'll never reach the fruit. All of these fruits are native, and if you aren't into making food out of them, plant some anyway, and enjoy photography because the wildlife and birds will certainly enjoy your treats.