The Spirit Of The Elder Tree
Published Samhain 1996
Of all the native trees of the British Isles, it is the elder tree which evokes my deepest affection. Of all the trees, I talk readily to the elder and feel the presence of its spirit in a tangible way. It is easy to be thankful for it for all its abundant herbal, magickal and culinary gifts, and easy to feel and honour the wise woman spirit of the elder – the Queen of Trees, Hylde-moðer, the Elder Tree Mother. The elder is the Old Crone aspect of the triple Goddess, a wise old energy at the end of the year’s cycle.
The elder rules the 13th moon in the Ogham calendar, the ending of the old year and beginning of the new at Samhain. For this reason the Ogham meaning is to honour the beginning in every end and the end in every beginning. Each death, each end brings a new start, rebirth.
The elder grows rapidly from any part, and so speaks to us of regeneration and the power of the life force. It is a powerful symbol of life energy and creativity at a time of the year when everything must return, and elder is a reminder of the never ending cylce of life, death and rebirth, bringing power and hope at this dark time in the year’s cycle.
The Elder is sometimes called the “death tree” because of this. Funerary flints found in megalithic long barrows were elder leaf shaped, suggesting this association goes back a long way. It is also called the “witch’s tree” and certainly the village hedge-witch would have used the elder extensively, as herbally it is wonderfully rich and potent in all its parts – leaves, flowers, berries and bark. The presence of the Old Mother energy of the tree probably also accounts for this name. It is said in Irish folklore that it is the elder stick and not ashen ones which are used by witches for their magic horses, which makes me wonder whether the bark was pershaps used for inducing trance. Certainly it is a purgative and will induce vomiting and perspiration. Flutes made of elder were used to summon spirits, and elder was also a common wood of wands. Justice was often dispensed under an alder, so the hilt of a coven sword was often made of elder wood.
The earliest folk tales praise elder’s ability to ward off evil or malevolent spirits, and to undo evil magic. Elder blossom was worn at Beltane to signify witchcraft and magic and elder twigs were woven into a head-dress at this time to enable the wearer to see spirits also undo evil magic. But there seems to be two very different tales of the elder and it seems that the elder was given a lot of bad press – that it was the tree itself which brought death, that a malevolent spirit dwelled within it, that it was the tree from which the cross was made and the tree from which Judas hanged himself. These are later tales, undoubtedly, growing out of fear of the Old Ways and the village hedgewitch, and going “all out” to shun the elder.
There are very strong superstitions about not cutting down the elder. Maybe a fear of releasing that malevolent spirit or maybe a deep respect for this tree, which gives so much by way of medicines, food and drink. Early European folk tales tell of a dryad, Hylde-moer, The Elder Tree Mother, who lives in the elder tree and watches over it. Should the tree be chopped down and furniture made of the wood, Hylde-moer would follow her property and haunt the owners. Similar tales tell that if a child’s cradle were to be made of elder, Hylde-moer would pinch the child black and blue and give it no peace or rest. Thus it is considered unlucky to make a cradle out of elder wood – birch being the property wood for a cradle, signifying a new start or inception.
Much of the folklore around Elder suggests its ability to drive away evil spirits. As a protection against evil (and later against witchcraft) its branches were hung in doorways of houses, cowsheds, buried in graves and its twigs were carried. It can be used to bless a person, place or thing, by scattering leaves and berries to the four directions, and over the thing or person being blessed. The Elder is the Old Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and powerful indeed is her protection and blessing. She guards the entrance to the underworld and death, the threshold of consciousness and the dark inner mysteries, and represents change and transformation.
At Samhain, the last of the elderberries were picked with solemn rites. The wine made from these berries were considered the last sacred gift of the Earth Goddess, and was valued and drunk ritually to invoke prophecy, divination and hallucinations.
Elderberry wine has curative powers of established repute. Taken hot at night it will help in the early stages of a cold or ‘flu, and is excellent for a sore throat and catarrh. This is due to the viburnic acid contained in the berries which induces perspiration and helps to “bring the cold out”. It also had a reputation in the past as an excellent remedy for asthma.
Make it simply by stripping off the ripe berries with a fork until you have three gallons of berries. Pour over 2 gallons of boiling water, cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours. Strain through muslin and press all the juice well out. Measure it and allow 3lbs (1.3kg) of sugar, half an ounce (14g) of ginger and quarter of an ounce (7g) of cloves to each gallon (approx 5 litres). Boil slowly for 20 minutes, strain into a bucket, adding the yeast when it is lukewarm. Pour into demijohns, standing them in a warm place while the yeast works through the sugar. Bottle when it stops. It’s really best to leave it for at least a year, and 2 or 3 years is even better.
An old cure for colds and coughs, and especially bronchitis, was to make a “rob” (a vegetable juice thickened by heat) from elderberries. Use 5lbs of fresh ripe berries, crushed with 1lb of sugar and evaporate to the thickness of honey. One or two tablespoons mixed with hot water and taken at night will act as a demulcent to the chest and throat.
Relearning these age-old cures for common ailments connects me to the earth, its abundance and my power. I become a part of nature and I value and bless the plants and the trees for all their gifts to us. Medicines from the chemist invariably have all manner of unknown chemicals and are also very expensive. A wealth of cheap, effective, natural medicines is just waiting to be used, and none is richer than the elder.
The Elder has survived in the cities and towns, and even manages to find its way back out of cracks in concrete. It flourishes near abandoned dwellings, in churchyards, rabbit warrens and badger setts – in fact wherever the nitrogen content is high, where the soil has been broken down by organic matter such as dung, compost and refuse. It survives on the common lands, wastelands and along railway lines – so even if you live in the city it can still be found. Spot it in June when the abundance of its tiny white flowers can be seen clearly. Remember where it is so that you can return to it at other times of year when it may not be so recognisable. In the autumn it has dusters of dark purple berries and the leaves yellow and drop early.
It makes a fast growing hedge, which can be clipped to thicken it. Like willow, it can be planted easily by pushing the small young branches into the ground. It is a useful small tree for a garden, but best a back corner as not much will grow beneath it. There are so many things to use it for that it is a valuable tree to have near.
An infusion of the leaves, rubbed into the skin, will prevent mosquitoes, midges and flies settling on you. A spray of leaves worn in the hat also helps. The same mixture can also be sprayed onto plants to keep off aphids and other small insects. The leaves can also be made into an ointment as a remedy for bruises, swellings, sprains, chilblains and wounds, bringing a cooling effect. Take three parts fresh elder leaves, heat them up with 6 parts Vaseline until the leaves are crisp. Then strain and store.
The flowers, which are at their best at midsummer, also have many uses from eye bath to skin tonic, for colds and ‘flu and catarrhal inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, such as hay fever and sinusitis. Gather the flowers on a dry day and dry them fast. They do discolour but are perfectly OK. I have found the best method is to hand the clusters upside down in paper bags in the sunshine. The bags catch the flowers as they dry and drop off. When completely dry, store them in dark screw-top jars.
A tea made of the fresh flowers makes an excellent spring/summer tonic, take fresh each morning to purify the blood. They can also be added to salads, cakes and made into wonderful summer drinks such as elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne.
The elderberries are used for rheumatism and, as already mentioned, are a fine preventative against colds, ‘flu and sore throats, as well as being used to cool any swellings, such as piles. They can also be mixed with other seasonal fruits and used for pies, jams, vinegar, ketchup and chutney. Too numerous to go into here, but some excellent recipes can be found in old herbals such as Mrs Grieves Modern Herbal.
The use of the bark as a strong purgative dates back to Hippocrates, but is rarely used nowadays. The romans apparently used the elderberry juice to dye their hair black. Culpepper suggests boiling them in wine first. The bark of the older branches was used in the making of black dye and also the root. The leaves yield, with alum, a green dye and the berries dye blue and purple (with alum) and violet (with alum and salt).
The word “elder” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “æld” meaning fire, probably due to the hollowed out stems being used to blow up the fire. Inside the stem is a thick soft pith which can easily be hollowed out, forming hollow tubes. These used to be used to make whistles and pipes, hence the elder’s country name “pipe tree” or “bore tree” and “bour tree” as it is still called in Scotland. Other old names for Elder are Eldrun, Hyldor and Hyllantree in the 14th century. In Low Saxon the name appears to be Ellhorn.
The generic name of the Elder is Sambucus, this is apparently a musical instrument found in ancient Greece. It is said to be a harp, a stringed instrument, which I find hard to believe, when it naturally makes pipes. Many types of wind instruments have been made of the hollowed out stems of the Elder, including flutes, pan pipes and a surprisingly loud reeded whistle. Italian country folk still make a simple pipe called a sampogna out of Elder. Throughout Europe, generations of country children have made pop-guns and pea shooters from the hollowed out stems.
The wood is white to yellow, with a fine grain. It is a hard wood, but it cuts easily and it polishes up well. Perhaps because of the superstitions about not cutting it down, and because it is a fairly small tree, it has not been used for making large things; small pegs, skewers, spoons, small turned items, combs and children’s toys. The hollowed out stems make natural beads, which are very easy and satisfying to make. Cut a young branch into bead-sized pieces with secateurs, then scrape off the bark and sand, first with a rough sandpaper and then with a finer one. Wear the beads for protection and as an allegiance to the Elder and nature spirits.
I find that the modern farmer and modern methods of hedge-cutting do not heed the old lore, and plenty of cut Elder is round along the hedgerows if you keep an eye open for it. It is best to use wood which is newly cut or 6 months to a year old. Do not use old wood. Many insects live inside the stems as the pith is so soft and easy to hollow out. Perhaps this is why it is not considered good to bring into your house to burn if it is full of ants and earwigs! I have heard that it is not a good burner anyway.
If you do need to cut yourself some wood from the tree, approach the tree with respect; ask first, and listen with an open heart. Don’t cut if you get a strong intuition not to. Some people like to leave a small gift of some kind – something practical like untangling ivy, clearing up around the trunk, watering in dry weather or tidying up rubbish from around the tree. An attitude of gratitude and thanks to the tree is a positive act which all of nature responds well to. Others say it matters not to the tree, but the very act of thanking opens up something in us which is very healthy and necessary for our spirits. For this reason it is important to state your thanks simply, and from the heart, each time you take nature’s gifts. I also find that it builds up a bond with a tree, a friendship of great power and wisdom. The Elder, of all the trees, has much to teach us, through direct contact, communication and reconnection to past uses and country lore.