Stories of Trees: Elder

Image by : Mugdha Sapte

Image by : Mugdha Sapte

This spring, something was different. I’ve been noticing the elder tree more this year. The sight of it makes me smile and on many occasions I’ve had to stop mid-step when hit by its summery scent and look around for its source. A little bit like hearing your name being called out, turning around and recognising a friend in the crowd. People who work with plants will often start to humanise them, saying things like ‘see which plant speaks to you’ or referring to them as ‘an old friend’. I raised my eyebrow to that before. Not anymore. A few years ago it was hawthorn. I could smell its almond-like, sweet almost nauseating smell from a mile away. This year the elder seems to be befriending me.

I don’t remember my first encounter with the elder tree. Do you? It is such an ingrained part of our landscape and our summers! And lately elderflower picking has become almost a ritual for seasonal living. Indeed I found a saying that the English summer begins with elderflower and ends with elderberries. I know my summer is incomplete without lemonade, Pimms and elderflower cordial! It probably isn't the case anymore (although it would be wonderful if it was), but I’m sure there was a time when every adult could have recognised the elder tree from making pop-guns and whistles from its hollow stems as a child. I remember too having the most refreshing and delicious drink ever in Switzerland many years ago. When I enquired if those tiny five-petal flowers floating in the punch bowl were elderflowers, my host was super secretive of her family recipe. But regardless of my unproven suspicions, I fell in love with them from then on. 

So this spring as I began noticing elderflowers more, my curious mind began to enquire the history and folklore of Sambucus Nigra. Over the years, I had got to know elder better from a herbal medicine, a culinary and a foraging perspective and began regarding it with reverence. After all it was once called ‘the poor man’s medicine chest’ on account of its healing benefits for a wide range of ailments, from bronchitis to rheumatic pains, migraines, flu etc. The berries are very high in Vitamin C and studies have proven that elderberry extract inhibited the H1N1 virus (swine flu) in vitro and was effective against H5N1 virus (bird flu). I actually heard a story that during the autumn of the bird flu when the herbalists went looking for elderberries encouraged by its antiviral properties they found almost none. After much speculation and debate, a seven year old remarked that of course the birds have been medicating themselves, thus preventing its spread! Other than the flowers and the berries, its bark, leaves and even the roots were once used medicinally. The berries were also used as dyes producing violet, lilac and black colour.

I therefore found myself frowning at the sinister reputation it seems to have acquired. It is rumoured to be the tree that Judas hung himself off (amongst other contenders) and also whose wood was used for the crucifix. Making a child’s cradle with elder wood is said to bring ill luck. One reference specifies the baby will be pinched black and blue by the spiteful elder mother who lived in the wood. Witches were said to be able to transform into elder trees too; in Ireland they seem to be riding elder staffs instead of brooms. To burn elder wood brought death and disaster and was believed to ‘raise the devil’.  There is a record from 1850 of a parishioner saying, ‘...we look carefully through the faggots before we burn them, for fear that there should be any of this (elder) wood in them.’

But travel back further in time and the story is quite different. The name is derived perhaps from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Aeld’ meaning fire as the hollow stems were used to blow air into the flames. In Denmark, it was known as ‘Hyldemor’ – Elder Mother, the crone aspect of the feminine trinity, who is said to dwell in the tree. One was not allowed to cut a branch without permission lest you anger the Lady.

‘Lady Elder, give me some of thy wood and I will give you some of mine when I become a tree.’

In Ireland the tree is associated with the Faery realms. Sitting under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve (or Samhain in Scotland), one might be graced with the sight of the Faery King and Queen (conspicuous amounts of elderflower wine may have been recommended beforehand!). And in the Celtic Ogham calendar, the elder tree rules the 13th month (approx Nov 25 – Dec 21).

It then started to occur to me how the elder might have started to gain a bad reputation during spread of Christianity. It suddenly makes sense how the crone, the Mother, becomes a witch - its association with the 13th moon might make it automatically unlucky. And is it so hard to see how its link to the otherworld of faeries becomes a link to the underworld of the devil?

There are some superstitions, however, which make sense. Stay with me on this one. We now know that the leaves and bark are full of cyanogenic glucosides and volatile neurotoxic alkaloids: sambugrine and conicine. This could explain the basis of at least two of the superstitions, of never sleeping under the elder tree and of never burning its wood. I can see how a person might feel at least unwell having smelt the narcotic scent laced with cyanide compounds in their sleep, all night. Another might feel a more hallucinogenic effect and might see the faery king after all!  And if its wood was burnt indoors I imagine it would make the occupants feel rather faint or nauseous for the same reasons. It makes for a poor fuel with a small flame and little heat, and if any stems made their way into the fire, due to their hollow structure, they would spit angrily (like an angry witch or the devil one might say). 

So I take its ill reputation with a pinch of salt and feel glad that it still plays a part in our lives and our seasons. I think of the birds that might be eating the berries to combat their illness. I think of its medicinal virtues that are available to us if only we know them. Thanks to J.K Rowling, I think of the most powerful wand ever made. I always ask permission or give thanks, hoping to keep some quirky traditions alive. And just for humor, I might even seek and sit under an elder tree on Midsummer Eve. Now that the elderflowers are almost gone, I look at the trees soon to be laden with delicious berries hoping that my syrup attempts will be more successful than my cordials.

(first published online at on 11 July 2017)


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