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 all its abundant herbal, magickal and culinary gifts and easy to feel and honour the wisdom of a wise elder, the wise woman spirit - the Queen of Trees, 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 Celtic Tree Calendar, the ending of the old year and beginning of the new at the Celtic festival of Samhain. For this reason the message of the Elder is to honour the beginning in every end and the end in every beginning. Each death, each end, brings a new start, rebirth and regeneration. 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 the life energy and creation at a time of the year when everything must return to the Earth for regeneration and renewal. Elder is a reminder of the never ending cycle of life, death and rebirth, bringing power and hope at his 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 the bark. The presence of the Old Mother energy of the tree probably also accounts for this name. It is said in Irish folklore that is it the Elder stick and not Ash ones, which were used by witches for their magic horses, which makes me, wonder whether the bark was perhaps 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.
The earliest folk tales praise Elder's ability to ward of 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 headdress at Samhain to enable the wearer to see spirits. But there are two very different folktales associated with the Elder, with a later overlay of bad press imposed by the Church, in their need to eradicate the old Pagan religion from this land. These superstitions say that the tree itself brought death, that a malevolent spirit dwelled within it, that is was the tree from which the cross was made and the tree from which Judas hanged himself. These later overlays grew out of fear of the Old Ways and eradication of the village hedge witch or wise woman who would have used the Elder in many of her herbal remedies..
There are very strong superstitions about not cutting down the Elder. Maybe a fear of releasing that malevolent spirit or maybe born of 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 proper wood for a cradle, signifying a new start or inception.
Other folklore customs associated with the Elder invoke its ability to drive away evil spirits. As a protection against evil (and later against witchcraft!) its branches were hung in doorways of houses, cow sheds, buried in graves and its twigs were carried at funerals.
Elder 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, while and speaking invocations with heartfelt intention and imagry. 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. She represents change and transformation at the deepest inner level.
At Samhain, the last of the elderberries were picked with solemn rites. The wine made from these berries was considered the last sacred gift or 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 cold or flu, and is excellent for a sore throat and catarrh. This is due to the viburnic acids contained in the berries, which stimulates the immune system, 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 the juice and allow 3lbs of sugar, half an ounce of ginger and quarter of an ounce of cloves to each gallon (approx 5 litres). Boil slowly for 20 minutes, strain into a bucket, adding 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 after 2 or 3 years it improves greatly and 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 1 lb 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.
Elderberries are used for rheumatism, as well as being used to cool any swellings, such as piles. The 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.
Relearning to make and use 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 in them and are also very expensive. A wealth of cheap, effective, natural medicines are just waiting to be used and reclaimed, none more useful and abundant than the Elder.
The Elder has a powerful life force energy and has survived in the cities and towns and even manages to grow out of cracks in concrete. It flourishes near abandoned dwellings, in churchyards, canals, 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 railways lines- so even if you live in the city it can still be found. Spot it in June when the abundance of its fine white flowers can be seen clearly. Remember where it is so that you can return to it at other times of the year when it may not be so recognisable. In the Autumn it has distinctive clusters of dark purple berries and the leaves yellow and drop early.
There are so many things to use it for that it is a valuable tree to have near. It makes a fast growing hedge, which can be clipped to thicken it. Like the Willow, it can be planted easily by pushing small sections of fresh wood into the earth or into pots of compost. This is best done in Autumn and Winter. In the Spring keep clipping off the flowers and all but the main shoot, to encourage the roots to grow during its first year. It is a useful small tree for a garden, but best grown in a back corner as not much will grow beneath it.
It is a good insecticide. Simply rub the leaves onto the skin or make an infusion of the leaves by pouring boiling water onto a jug of leaves. Cover it while it infuses, to keep in the goodness and then strain off the leaves and bottle. This can be rubbed into the skin frequently, and will prevent mosquitoes, midges and flies settling on you. (A mixture like this will be effective for a day or two but is best remade daily.) A sprig of the leaves worn in the hat also helps. The same mixture can also be sprayed onto other 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 or similar 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 hang the clusters upside down in paper bags, somewhere warm and dry. The bags catch the flowers as they dry and drop off. When completely dry, store them in dark screw-top jars.
A tea made from 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 use of the bark as a strong purgative dates back to Hippocrates, but is rarely used nowadays. The Romans apparently used elderberry juice to dye their hair black. Culpepper suggests boiling them in wine first. The bark of Elder branches was used in the making of a black dye and also the root. The leaves, mixed with alum, make a green dye and the berries make a blue and purple dye (with alum) and violet (with alum and salt).
The word 'Elder' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "aeld" meaning fire, probably due to the hollowed out stems being used to blow up the fire. Inside the stem is 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' as it is still called in Scotland. Other old names for Elder are Eldrun, Ellhorn, Hydlore and Hyllan tree.
The generic name of the Elder is Sambucus, this is apparently a musical instrument found in ancient Greece. It is said to be, a stringed instrument, a kind of harp, which I find hard to believe, when it naturally makes pipe. Many types of wind instruments have been made out of hollowed out stems of the Elder, including flutes, panpipes 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 of Elder.
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's wood was not used much in the past. It was used for small pegs, skewers, spoons, small turned items, combs and 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 or saw them. 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 found 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 it into your house to burn if it's full of ants and earwigs! I have heard that 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, watering the tree 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 is 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 gift. I also find that it builds up a great 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.