I’ve been noticing a lot of the elder trees blooming in my neck of the woods lately, so I thought I might take a stab at sharing some information on that particular plant.
Elder is a tree that has a long history with humanity. Its uses are broad, including medicinal, culinary, and magical aspects. Generally speaking, elder comprises anything in the genus Sambucus, with species names like nigra, canadensis, peruviana, etc. depending on region and appearance. Elders can be very shrubby, or full-grown trees reaching up to 25 feet tall. They have white flowers which bloom in the summer in bunches called corymbs (these are very prominent, so much so in fact that I felt compelled to write a blog post on them). The blue-black berries, which appear in late summer and early fall, are a foodstuff used in everything from jams to vinegars. The shoots of the elder have even been used as toys. According to Botanical.com:
“The popular pop-gun of small boys in the country has often been made of Elder stems from which the pith has been removed, which moved Culpepper to declare: ‘It is needless to write any description of this (Elder), since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the Elder.’ Pliny’s writings also testify that pop-guns and whistles are manufactures many centuries old!”
Medicinally, elders different parts have different uses (a quick note: I am not a medical professional. Please seek professional medical advice before using any plant medicinally). The flowers have been used in tisanes to help alleviate all manner of ailments: sore throats, swollen tonsils, flu symptoms, etc. The cooled elder tea could also be used topically on sunburns or to alleviate sore eyes. The leaves of the elder can be used as a poultice or turned into an unguent to treat bruises, cuts, and abrasions. The bark can be used as a potent purgative, though the inner bark is better for this than the outer.
As food, elder berries are most commonly consumed as elderberry jam. They can also be turned into a syrup, and made into a delicious cordial for the adults in the crowd. A sweet and slightly spicy wine can also be made from the berries, which seems to be very popular among the brew-it-yourself crowd. I remember an old herbal book of mine which also contained a recipe for drinks like elderberry fizz and elderberry flip, which are essentially cocktails made from either the wine or the cordial.
Magically, elder has appeared in many cultures with many different purposes. Some of the Old World magical associations with elder include:
- Driving away evil spirits (Russian)
- Magically removing fever (Czech)
- Protection against witchcraft (English)
- Good luck at weddings (Serbian)
- Preventing theft (Sicilian)
- Bad luck if burned (Romany)
The Danes believe that furniture made from elder wood is haunted by a spirit called Hylde-Moer (or “Elder Mother”), who may bear a connection to Mother Holle in Teutonic mythology.
On this side of the Atlantic, elder shows up in several systems. John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend recommends frying elder leaves with tobacco leaves in butter to make a healing salve. In hoodoo, elder is used primarily for protection. Hung in a bag near the entrance to the home, elder wood and flowers prevents intruders from coming in. When mixed with the potent devil’s shoestring herb, it can prevent any unwanted guest from getting close to your home. Catherine Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic recommends elder as part of a Law-Keep-Away spell:
“Determine how many ways there are to enter the place where you conduct your business, and for each way, cut an elder stick five inches long, and get a small piece of John the Conqueror root. On each elder stick carve five notches, one-half inch apart, then cut a sharpened point on each stick. About fifty feet down each path leading to the place, drive a hole into the ground. Put a piece of John the Conqueror root at the bottom of the hole, followed by an elder stick, pointed end down, with all the notches facing North. It is said that no law officer will walk or drive over those elder pegs” (HHRM p.90).
Yronwode also recommends drawing a circle around oneself with an elder branch and making a wish. If you try this out, I’d love to hear your results!
There are probably dozens of other things I’m missing about elder, but hopefully this is a good start. If you have uses of elder or experiences with the plant you’d like to share, please feel free to do so!
Thanks for reading,