|SYNONYMS:||Pipe tree, Ellhorn, Black Elder, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Eller, Holler, Hylder, Hylantree, Holunder (German), Sureau (French)|
This well-loved, bushy tree is a common sight all over Britain (especially southern England), and most parts of central and southern Europe. Its habit usually appears a bit sprawling as several stems emerge from the ground, branching frequently. The bark is light gray, fissured and covered with many lenticles (breathing pores). These branches are bendy and break off quite easily. The twigs contain an inner pith, which is very light and cork-like, and can easily be removed. Children have taken advantage of this property for many generations by making pipes and pop-guns from the hollowed out twigs. The pinnate leaves have opposite, ovate leaflets with serrated margins and one larger terminal leaflet. The inflorescences appear in May as big umbel-shaped bunches of tiny 5-petaled whitish flowers, exuding a heavy, sweet, slightly narcotic smell. By the end of the summer they develop into drooping bunches of small purple-black berries, which are a popular food of many birds.
Elder commonly grows near farms and homesteads. It is a nitrogen loving plant and thus thrives near places of organic waste disposal. Elders are often grown as a hedgerow plant in Britain since they take very fast, can be bent into shape easily and grow quite profusely, thus having gained the reputation of being ‘an instant hedge’. It is not fussy about soil type or pH level and will virtually grow anywhere where it gets enough light.
HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE
The name Elder, is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’, meaning fire. Another old name for Elder is Ellhorn, hinting at the use of hollowed Elder branches as a furnace. Old names like Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree, and the German word Holunder all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess, Hylde Moer, as she was known in Denmark. Once upon a time, the Elder-tree was considered sacred to this Goddess, and the tree’s gifts were regarded as her blessings. It was commonly believed that Elders were inhabited by a tree dryad who was thought to represent the soul of the tree or sometimes was seen as an aspect of the Goddess herself. If treated well and honoured appropriately, the dryad was a most benevolent spirit that blessed and protected the people who cared for it. Thus, Elders were often planted around the house and on the farm where they served as a shrine to the Goddess whose protective powers could be invoked by making prayers and offerings to the tree. Since Elders never seemed to get struck by lightening, having it grow near the house was believed to protect the house as well. There was a widespread taboo against cutting Elders down, or burning any of its wood, which lasted well into this century. It was thought that the dryad would take out her vengeance against the offender by hunting them down and punishing them with bad luck or, as was believed in Rumania – with toothache. According to ancient folk beliefs toothaches were thought to be caused by supernatural forces and were often considered a divine punishment, or else, caused by evil spirits. The only legitimate reason for cutting down an Eldertree or taking any part of it was to use it for medicine or as a protective charm – and even that only with the consent of the resident dryad. To ask for consent the person would bend their bared heads, fold their arms and solemnly exclaim:
‘Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood,
and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.’
With the rise of Christianity and the subsequent persecution of any form of tree worship, the sacred Elder tree became a tree of witches and the old stories were soon distorted and turned around to suit the preachers of the new religion. The Church portrayed Elder as a tree of sorrow because Judas supposedly hung himself from an Elder-tree after betraying Jesus. Even the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was said to have been made of Elder wood. According to Christian mythology this was the reason why Elders never since could stand up straight and even to this day barely have the strength to support themselves.
Nevertheless, some of the older believes persisted and people carried on pinning Elder leaves on their doors to ward off witches, daemons and other evil influences. During the Middle Ages such folkloristic magic was practiced all over Europe and many curious customs evolved from the eventual merging of pre-Christian and Christian believes. For example, it was thought that witches and sorcerers could be revealed by cutting the pith of Elderstems into flat disks, dipping these in oil, setting them alight and floating them in a glass of water, – if performed on Christmas Eve. The author of this recommendation does not specify how the daemons would manifest under these circumstances, though. On the other hand, one could also use Elder to entice the devil for one’s own purposes. On the 6th of January (Bertha Night) when the devil apparently ‘goes about with special virulence’, one could try to obtain some of his ‘Mystic Fernseed’ which was believed to give its owner the strength of 30 or 40 men, keep worms out of furniture, repel snakes and mosquitoes and cure toothaches. To obtain this magic substance it was essential to protect oneself by casting a magic circle, the boundary of which one must not be broken under any circumstances. Further protection was offered by carrying some Elderberries that had been gathered on St. John’s night. But since there are no Elderberries to be found on St. Johns Day (21 June) this recommendation appears to be a little impractical. A more likely version of this ritual recommends casting the circle with Elder branches as a magic wand.
Elder’s reputation to offer protection against evil spirits seems to be common everywhere, from Russia to Rumania and from Sicily to Scotland. A less common custom comes from Serbia, where Eldertwigs were believed to bestow good luck to a newly-wed couple if introduced at the wedding ceremony. This old pagan custom may have been the basis of a more recent belief common in Britain during Victorian times. According to this belief a man and woman would marry within a year if they were to drink together from an Ale that had been infused with Elderflowers.
In pre-Christian times the ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of life – birth, fruition, death and regeneration. This rhythm was reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon, the cycles of the season and naturally was also thought to govern the lives of wo/men. Thus, in one of her aspects she was revered as a Goddess of the Underworld, who guarded over the souls of the dead. Green twigs of Elder were often placed into coffins or buried in graves to offer protection for the deceased on their journey to the Otherworld. Elsewhere Christian and pre-Christian beliefs merged into a new brand of compound folk customs bearing elements of both traditions. In Tyrol for example, Elders were planted onto graves and trimmed into the shape of a cross. If the tree started to flower, the soul was said to be happy.
An interesting custom from Rumania allows a deeper glimpse into the old folk beliefs. At Easter it was customary to sacrifice a pig for the festive roast. The pig’ inedible remains were given a ceremonial burial and it was thought that in the following year an Elder-tree would grow from them. Easter/ Spring Equinox is the time of regeneration, the time when the power of the Earth-Goddess reawakens the land and blesses the people with her abundant gifts. Both pigs (being an image of self-sacrificing motherhood and the nurturing principle per se) and Eldertrees were sacred to this ancient Goddess on account of their obvious attributes of abundance and fertility.
In Denmark this Goddess was known as Hylde-Moer and she presided over the realm of the fairies. These beings are of course also creatures of the Otherworld, who nevertheless from time to time might venture into our world, especially at the time of the Summer-Solstice. If one wanted to see the fairies on their way to the Midsummer nights feast, it was recommended to go and hide in a grove of Elder trees. (Drinking ample quantities of freshly made Elderflower champagne whilst hiding in the bushes might also help).
Elder has often been described as the medicine chest of the country people and many of its medicinal uses are still widely employed by modern herbalists. In 1644 a book dedicated entirely to the virtues of Elder was translated from Latin into English. The author sings the praises of the Eldertree in no less than 230 pages. The booklet became so popular that it ran through several editions in both the English and the Latin version. Every single part of the plant was mentioned as medicinally useful. Reference is even made to an edible fungus known as ‘Judas Ear'(alluding to the above-mentioned myth), which often appears on Elders that grow in damp and shady places. Accordingly, its medicinal powers were deemed effective for treating quinsy, sore throats and strangulation (!). The Elder itself was deemed effective for practically any ailment, ‘from toothache to the plague’. It seems like a whole apothecary could be stocked solely from the many preparations that could be made from its various parts. The list is quite exhaustive – ‘a rob or syrup, tincture, mixture, oil, ointment, spirit, water, liniment, extract, salt, conserve, vinegar, oxymel, sugar, decoction, bath, cataplasm, and powder’, made from one, several or all parts of the plant. However, in the old days the healing powers of a plant were not just considered due to their phytochemical activity, instead the more esoteric, subtle energy of the plant (as we might call it today) also played a great part in many sympathetic magical healing operations.
A favorite remedy against rheumatism for example, came in the form of a charm or amulet, which was made by tying several knots into a young Elder-twig that had to be carried close to the body. Elder twigs were also believed to cure warts. For this purpose the wart was rubbed with a freshly cut twig, which thereafter had to be buried in mud and left to rot. Other, more direct forms of ‘transfer magic’ were also common. The idea behind such practices was that sickness could be transferred to a tree, who by the merit of its healing power could absorb and neutralize the sickness. Various trees served this purpose, depending on the type of illness or local availability of particular trees. A typical practice noted for the Eldertree for example was to take a measure of three spoons from a sick person’s bath-water and to pour this liquid onto the roots of the tree. Many other illnesses, from epilepsy to pneumonia could be cured in similar ways, and numerous related customs are reported from many areas of Europe. To cure epilepsy for example the sufferer had to go and lie down under an Elder tree upon the first attack, whilst for Pneumonia it was recommended that the person should lie face down under an Elder-tree, with out stretched arms. Another person should measure him from one hand to the other and from head to toe with a piece of string. The string was then to be hung from the tree and when it had rotted away the pneumonia was supposed to be cured. However, to dream of Elder was deemed to be an omen of sickness.
CONTEMPORARY MEDICINAL USES
Elder still counts among the most useful medicinal plants available to modern herbalists. All parts of the plant are medicinally active and in times gone by, a myriad of different remedies were prepared from the different parts. Since heroic medicine has somewhat gone out of fashion these days, Elder bark, root-bark and leaves are no longer used. Uses for these parts are cited here merely for the sake of historical completion. As their action is very powerful caution is advised and self-medication is not recommended.
|Leaves||dried or fresh|
|Flowers||dried or fresh|
|Berries||best preserved as cordial, syrup or wine|
|CONSTITUENTS:||Sambucine (alkaloid), cyanogenetic glucoside (Sambunigrin), Triterpines, Flavonoids (include. rutin and quercetin)|
|ACTIONS||Externally: emollient and anti-inflammatory
Internally: purgative, diuretic, diaphoretic, expectorant
|INDICATIONS||An ointment made with fresh green leaves (traditionally known as Unguentum Sambuci Viride – Green Elder Ointment) can be used for the treatment of chilblains, sprains, bruises and wounds and was also once valued as an emollient. Leaves boiled with linseed oil makes a soothing application for haemorrhoids. Old herbals mention the use of green Elder leaves against nervous headaches. For this purpose the leaves were heated between two hot tiles and then applied to the forehead. Culpepper says: ‘it purgeth the brain…’ Internally an infusion of the leaves served as a treatment for dropsy, probably due to their diuretic properties. They are said to be purgative and more nauseating than the bark.|
|HARVEST TIMES:||early summer|
|CONSTITUENTS:||Triterpenes, fixed oil containing free acids, alcanes, flavonoids|
|ACTIONS:||Diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant|
|INDICATIONS:||Today the flowers are the only part of the Eldertree that is still commonly used in contemporary herbal medicine. The flowers have a long-standing reputation as a treatment for all kinds of inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever. An infusion can be made to treat coughs, colds and flus, asthma and hayfever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce fevers and thus it has often proven useful in cases of measles, scarlet fever and other infections. Externally an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing bath that soothes irritable nerves and relieves itchy skin. A cool infusion can be used as an eyewash for sore or inflamed eyes. Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with flowers, briefly dipped in hot water and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.|
|HARVEST TIMES:||late summer, early autumn|
|CONSTITUENTS:||Viburnic acid, odorous oil, tyrosin, inverted sugar, tannin, vitamin C and P and J|
|ACTIONS:||Aperient, diuretic, source of nutriments and vitamins|
|INDICATIONS:||The berries are rich in vitamins and minerals and are best used as a tonic syrup to ward off winter ailments. They are full of vitamins and thus strengthen and support the whole body. In particular a vitamin J is mentioned, which is specifically indicated to counteract pneumonia. Elderberries are reported to be of value as an alterative remedy in rheumatic conditions. They also soothe sore (inflamed) nerves and help to improve poor circulation.|
|Though no longer used for medicinal purposes for completion’s sake we will quote Mrs. Grieves on these now obsolete applications:
“The bark is a strong purgative which may be employed with advantage, an infusion of 1oz in a pint of water being taken in wineglassful doses; in large doses it is an emetic. Its use as a purgative dates back to Hippocrates. It has been much employed as a diuretic, an aqueous solution having been found very useful in cardiac and renal dropsies. It has also been successfully employed in epilepsy. An emollient ointment is made of the green inner bark, and a homeopathic tincture, made from the fresh inner bark of the young branches, in diluted form, relieves asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup of children – dose, 4- – 5 drops in water.6quot;Culpepper says: ‘The first shoots of the common Elder, boiled like Asparagus, and the young leaves and stalks boiled in broth, doth mightily carry forth phlegm and choler. The middle or inward bark boiled in water and given in drink worketh much more violently; and the berries, either green or dry, expel the same humour, and are often given with good success in dropsy; the bark of the root, boiled in wine or the juice thereof drunk, worketh the same effects, but more powerfully than either the leaves or fruit. The juice of the root taken, causes vomitings and purgeth the watery humours of the dropsy.’Though the use of the root is now obsolete, its juice was used from very ancient times to promote both vomiting and purging, and taken, as another old writer recommends, in doses of 1 to 2 tablespoons, fasting, once in the week, was held to be ‘the most excellent purge of watery humours in the world and very singular against dropsy.’ A tea was also made from the roots of Elder, which was considered an effective preventative for incipient dropsy, in fact the very best remedy for such cases.” …Those were the days of ‘heroic medicine’…
The fresh roots of the American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which closely resembles Sambucus nigra, are extremely poisonous and can cause death if ingested.
In the northeast United States a close relative of Sambucus nigra, known as ‘American Elder’ (Sambucus canadensis) used to be valued for its very similar medicinal properties by the Native Americans of those regions. Many of the reported uses closely resemble those of the Old World. The M’icmac’ also appreciated the plants purgative and emetic properties. The Iroquois prepared a poultice from the inner bark of the stem, pounded with boiling water, which they used to treat toothache. A decoction of both the berries and the inner bark was used as a febrifuge. An ointment for treating sores, burns and scalds was made with equal parts of the roots, root-bark, inner bark of the stem, leaves, flowers and berries. Asthma was treated with a tincture made from the fresh leaves and the flowers. A decoction of the wood and buds served as a remedy for ague and inflammations. The Choctaw Indians prepared a poultice by pounding the leaves with salt to treat headaches. The Creeks made and anti-inflammatory poultice for swollen breasts by pounding the tender roots with a little hot water. If the roots could not be obtained scrapings from the bark of the stem could be used instead. The Menominees used the dried flowers to make an infusion for treating fevers. The plant was considered feminine and some sources hint at their use for women’s complaints. These records are obscure however, since ethnobotanists were usually male and the women would not discuss such matters with men.
Elder is a well- familiar hedge plant. The flexible branches can easily be trimmed and laid, thus offering protection against wind, whilst providing a wonderful wild-life habitat – especially for birds, who love the fruit. Country lore testifies to the popularity of Elder as hedging plant. An old proverb praises its durability:
An Elder stake and a blackthorn ‘ether will make a hedge to last forever.
Whilst the branches are bendy and flexible, the heartwood and rootstock nevertheless are extremely strong and have been employed for fashioning various articles such as handles, stakes, fences, combs, and even instruments. Country-lore comments that an Elder-stake put in the ground would last longer than an iron stake of the same size. ‘The Latin name of the plant, ‘sambuca’ refers to an ancient instrument said to resemble a harp. This may be an indication that Elder-wood was once used for making these instruments. Some authors however have their doubts since in their opinion any instrument made from Elderwood would more likely be a wind-instrument. Generations of children have fashioned ad hoc pipes and pop-guns from the hollowed out branches.
Insect and vermin repellent:
Cattle appear to appreciate the presence of Elder in their fields and seem to instinctively recognize the insect repellent properties of the trees. Cows often rub themselves on the stem and branches or stay in its shade to discourage insects from bothering them. In days gone by, when much of the fieldwork was still done with the help of horses it was a common practice to attach some Elder leaves to the horse’s harness to ward off flies. Likewise, the field-workers would also pin some slightly bruised leaves to their hats to the same effect. Alternatively a decoction of the leaves could be used as an insect repellent lotion against midgets and mosquitoes. The smell of the leaves has been likened to that of mice nests and interestingly enough Mrs. Grieves mentions their use in repelling mice and moles.
An old herbal states that hitting fruit-trees, turnips, cabbages or corn with young Elder shoots was believed to provide protection against blight. A more recent article mentioning a recipe including Elder leaves, iron and copper sulfate, soft soap, nicotine and methylated spirit and slaked lime, seems to support this notion, though this makes for a far more poisonous brew. Organic gardeners have used a decoction of the young shoots as an insecticide spray against aphids and small caterpillars.
In Victorian times distilled Elderflower water was used as a highly valued emollient lotion, said to cleanse the skin, keeping it young and free of freckles and blemishes. Though fallen into disrespect for a number of years, Elderflower water has recently regained some popularity and is now once again produced commercially.
The bark, leaves and berries can all be used for dying. The bark gives a black dye, a decoction of the leaves with alum yields a green dye, whilst the berries with alum, dye purple or, if salt is added to the mixture, produce a lilac color.
Not all domestic animals are keen on Elder for fodder – while sheep and cows don’t seem to mind, horses and goats have no taste for it. Sheep suffering from foot-rot are even said to deliberately seek out Elders and will eat the bark to cure themselves. Wild birds love the berries but chickens apparently do not take well to them and the flowers are even said to be fatal if ingested by turkeys or peacocks.
The best-known culinary uses of Elderflowers and berries are the many delicious drinks that can be made from them. Numerous recipes for wines, syrups and cordials never lost their popularity and are still widely used in country areas in Europe even today. These drinks are not just simply delicious, but also medicinally valuable.
Less well known is the fact that young Elder shoots can be prepared like asparagus, or added to soups as a spring vegetable. Dipped in batter and deep-fried, the flower heads make a delicious snack, especially when served with maple syrup and lemon juice. Some people even like to eat the fresh flowers straight from the bush. However, the green, unripe berries are slightly poisonous and should be avoided. Even the ripe fresh berries retain some of this poison and some sources recommend heating all preparations of Elder to 100°C.
© Kat Morgenstern,
adapted from an article that first appeared in the Herb Quarterly in autumn issue of 2000