The Elder Tree
Elder has to be my herb for the month of June. The hedgerows recently have been particularly abundant in Elder’s frothy white blossoms that can be made into that favourite summer drink, elderflower champagne. The flowers always denote for me the true beginning of summer, while the berries mark the last of the hedgerow harvest and summer’s end. If we are prudent we can gather a number of valuable remedies from the Elder to get us through the winter months.
This is the first tree medicine that we will explore and a very powerful one. It has a long and venerable history of use, from (at least) the Greeks and Romans, to the Britons and Celts and right up to the present day. Elder has possibly the largest range of practical uses of any plant I know. The rich and mysterious folklore surrounding elder and its many medicinal, culinary and other uses make it hard to know where to begin.
Let’s start with some of the magical traditions connected with this beautiful little tree. It is said that a witch can turn herself into an elder tree and its wood is used for the making of magic wands. Elder trees were planted by houses to protect them from lightening and evil spirits. Cattle drivers used an elder switch against galling and other ills and hearse drivers were said to use elder wood for the handles of their whips. In the days when there was no separation between magic and medicine, many charms and amulets were fashioned from elder wood for all sorts of ills and sorrows.
In northern Europe Elder is consistently associated with a tree spirit or dryad, called HyldeMoer (Elder Mother) in Scandinavian. In order to make use of the magical power of the tree, the correct prayers and offerings would have to be made otherwise HyldeMoer would take her revenge. It was considered very unlucky to burn elder wood or to make furniture from elder, particularly cradles as HyldeMoer was said to come and torment the baby and make it cry ceaselessly, or worse, exchange the baby for a faerie child.
Elder is deeply connected with the realms of faery. Sitting under, or more riskily sleeping under, an Elder at midsummer was said to enable one to see the faeries or even see them going to their midsummer feast. The danger was being transported into the Underworld and not being able to escape. Elder is certainly associated with a spirit being, or Queen who is a guardian of the Underworld, where faeries and spirits of the dead reside. Elder is often planted in graveyards and crosses of elder used to be placed on new graves, presumably to help the spirits cross over.
Elder has very strong regenerative powers, growing easily from cuttings and rejuvenating itself from shoots growing at its base. For our ancestors this would have been a potent symbol for the cycle of life, death and rebirth. In the Celtic lunar calendar, which ascribes a tree and a letter to each month, Elder is the tree of the thirteenth month and is known as Ruis and signifies the letter R. Standing at Samhain which is the end of the cycle of the agricultural year and a new beginning, Elder brings a message of transformation, change and spiritual renewal.
Not surprisingly, the Christian church ‘demonized’ Elder, as it did many of the magical plants of the Druids and other pagans, and said that Elder wood was used for the crucifixion cross and that Judas hung himself from an Elder tree. Elder from then on appears to be a plant of mixed powers, of good and evil. To bring Elder into the house was to bring misfortune or even death to family members, while burning the wood would risk summoning the Devil himself.
As a personality Elder is feminine, wise, mature and bountiful in her nature conferring on us nourishment, healing and protection: a wise old woman of the hedgerows. As well as helping us humans, she also helps the other plants, being a keystone species in many ecosystems. Among some Native American peoples it is said that Elder teaches the other plants how to grow and what to do, like a mother of the woodlands.
As a giver of medicine, the Elder Mother is generous to the extreme and every part of the tree has been used at one time or another: root bark, pith, bark, leaves, buds, flowers, green and ripe berries and finally even a fungus that grows on the tree known as ‘Jew’s ears’ (an allusion to Judas presumably).
A Dr Blochwich published a whole treatise in latin on Elder in 1633, which draws on folk medicine as well as professional sources. He describes all the medicinal properties and applications of all the different parts of the tree, with numerous recipes including instructions for charms and amulets.
Elder continues to play an important part in modern herbal medicine and is still an important herb for home use. It is the flowers and berries that are most used today and these are the safest parts of the tree to use (the bark for example can be very purgative and the leaves toxic in the wrong dosage). Modern research in recent years has corroborated Elder’s reputation as a flu remedy, revealing that a constituent in Elder berries surrounds the flu virus and stops it invading our cells, while boosting the immune-system.
Elderflowers are picked when fully open and are made into teas, infusions, tinctures and syrups for internal use. To take an Elder cure, drink a cup of elderflower tea on rising every day while the tree is in flower. This will cleanse the kidneys, blood and the skin, by opening up the pores. For a cold or the onset of a fever, drink plenty of hot elderflower infusion to induce sweating. Elder also acts as a mucous membrane tonic and helps clear up catarrh, sinusitis and hay fever. A cold infusion of elder works brilliantly to bathe sore inflamed eyes, and to alleviate hot itchy skin (measles, chickenpox, eczema, dermatitis etc.) A salve made from elderflowers, olive oil and beeswax is a very old remedy for burns, chapped hands, chilblains, cuts and sores.
Elderberries usually ripen in September, though all berries seem to ripening earlier these days. The beautiful black-purple berries are an abundant source of Vitamin C and can be made into delicious syrup or a fresh tincture. Elderberries, as well as being good for flu, coughs and colds are also tonic to the blood and helpful for gout, rheumatism and nerve pains. In the eighteenth century, a certain variety of port was found helpful to those suffering from gout. On investigation, it was found that the port in question had been adulterated with elderberry wine.
Elderflowers and berries are also wonderful to eat, and there are many recipes for jams, puddings, sauces and even elderflower fritters. And of course there is elderflower wine, elderberry wine and the famous elderflower champagne. We are no longer supposed to call it that since a French company took an English elderflower drink manufacturer to court over debasing the word ‘champagne’ by associating it with such a peasants’ beverage, so now its ‘cordial’. The term ‘cordial’ comes from ‘coeur’, heart. May you enjoy Elder’s gift to the heart this summer…..