…in Cumbria you will spot the first showing of the creamy, lace like blossom of the elder and smell it’s strong fragrance on the breeze. Further south, elder has been in flower for over a month, but this year it is just beginning to show it’s beautiful heads of flower around the Lake District. Growing to around 15 metres tall, elder is short in the trunk and has furrowed, cork like bark.
This diminutive, native deciduous tree may be widespread but behind it’s commonly seen face is an uncommon richness in folklore, mythology and symbolism.
Elder has been used as a ‘medicine tree’ from, at least, the times of the Greeks and Romans and was also used by the Britons and Celts. John Evelyn, famous diarist and herbalist of the mediaeval times described elder as “a kind of Catholicon against all infirmities whatever”. Todays’ word for “Catholicon” is a panacea – a remedy for all diseases.
Elder features strongly in modern herbal medicine - elderflower tea is believed to cleanse the kidneys, skin and blood and help clear catarrh, sinusitis and hay fever. Cold infusions of elder soothe sore eyes and itchy skin caused by chicken pox, eczema and dermatitis. Salves made with elder flowers, olive oil and beeswax is a very ancient remedy for burns, chapped skin, cuts and sores still in use today.
Behind it’s effectiveness may be the fact that elderberries are very rich in vitamin C – and so help combat the symptoms of flu, colds and coughs. Modern research suggests that a chemical component from elderberry juice actually attacks the flu virus, stopping it interacting with the cells in our body whilst also boosting our immune system. It’s an example of modern science backing up what our ancient ancestors “knew” as a received wisdom.
But elder isn’t just a hedgerow medicine cabinet, it is foragers delight. Elder berries and flowers are wonderful to eat when cooked – as jams, cordials, sauces and fritters as well as a base for wines and champagnes.
Elder is even credited with making us more beautiful! The dew from elder flowers is also believed to enhance and maintain a woman’s youthful beauty! However rushing out to your nearest tree before breakfast might not be as daft as it seems – historically, eye lotions and skin cleaners may have contained elderflower or it’s derivatives – but, they are still in vogue - the Body Shop sells an elderflower eye gel. Another ancient wisdom passed down to modern times.
Elder has strong regenerative properties, cuttings grow easily and a tree can regenerate from shoots at it’s base. Perhaps, because of this, it is strongly associated with the cycle of life. In Scandinavia, the elder is said to be home to a matriarchal tree spirit known as “Hyldemoer” the elder mother. Before exploiting the medicinal properties of the tree, removing branches or felling an elder tree, a prayer or offering had to be made to Hyldemoer – or she would make her wrath known!
In the UK, elders are associated with witches in many ways. Witches are said to be able to turn into elder trees and hold their meetings under a fruiting tree. Apparently, wands are best made from elder wood. Elders also have strong links with faeries. If you sit under an elder at midsummer, it is said that you may be joined by the faerie folk!
The mythology linked to elder is geographically widespread. In Scotland, hanging elder above the door is said to ward off evil spirits, but over the border in England bringing elder indoors is considered unlucky! What is strange is that the mythology surrounding elder seems to grow wherever it does and has a commonality. In the Native American tradition, elder is grown in burial grounds, this may again be due to its associations with the cycle of life and renewal or regeneration.
The Anglo Saxon word for elder is “Aeld” which means fire. Elder branches have a pithy centre that is easily removed to make good tinder, it is thought that the hollow branches may have been used as bellows for fire starting. The hollow centre created by removing the pith makes elder branches ideal for making whistles, pipes and chanters – the wood also polishes well, producing a musical instrument with an attractive finish. Perhaps this practical use of elder the behind the faerie connection – the source of the lilting sounds of the faerie pipes…
Elder wood however is soft and poor for furniture making and also for fuel – the structure and sap it contains makes it spit and produce screaming like noises when it burns. It’s better put to use for carving and whittling. This spitting and screaming is said to be the devil spitting – elder also has strong associations with the devil. If you burn it, you are supposed to see the devil – another very good reason to keep it off the fire!
But, planted around your house, especially it is said, at the back door, elder is supposed to protect against evil and witches!
Amongst the many myths and traditional beliefs elder once again has some real practical uses and value. Elder does keep flies away, especially if the leafs are crushed, releasing their strong smell. Elder is a very strong provider in the ecosystem - its berries and flowers are great food source for butterflies, birds, dormice and voles. Many moth caterpillars, such as the white spotted pug, swallowtail and buff ermine feed on elder leafs.
In country lore, the elderflower blossom is said to mark the start of summer and the berries mark it’s end. Yet again, we can find ancient folklore on the marking of time with elder. The Celtic lunar calendar has a tree associated with each month. Elder marks the thirteenth moon month – the elder moon - known as “Ruis”. This covers the period around late November to late December – signifying the end of the agricultural year and new beginnings – again symbolising the cycles of life. Elder was seen during Celtic times as transformational, signifying change and spiritual renewal.
The mixed associations with elder – healer and protector, yet devil and witch harbinger, mostly appear after the adoption of the Christian calendar and beliefs. In pagan times, most associations were positive, if sometimes rather strange. The demonization of elder may well have been a Christian attempt to suppress previous pagan beliefs associated with the tree, as was done with many magical plants used by druids and pagans. Elder even wears the mantle (alongside some other tree’s) as being the source of the wood for the crucifixion – what a cross to bear!
I have to say I find myself looking twice at elders now. I used to see them only as a source for cordial and jam. Not any more! Healer, provider, beautifier, protector, harbinger of spirits - all from one little tree.