“[Elder has] been respected, revered and reviled by turns throughout different cultures and eras, but never ignored”
– Gabrielle Hatfield
A friend suggested I look into this plant and wow. There is so much of interest here! It is a plant of contradictions; it is benevolent and malevolent, kindly and spiteful. An emblem of death, trouble and sorrow but also of health and healing.
Starting with healing, the elder has been called the medicine chest of country people and used as a cure all. More specifically this has included using bark for rheumatism, the leaves for eczema and burns and berries for colds and flu. Other ailments that elder is used to treat include bronchitis, coughs, viral infections, disorders of the mouth, the digestive tract and the skin. It has been used in eye and skin lotions and to increase urination. As I said, this is a bit of a go to plant when it comes to herbal remedies.
The elder inhabits the edges – hedges, roadsides, pathways – which seems fitting for a plant that is essentially on the fence about its identity, uncommitted to a path of kindness or malevolence.
One example of this ambiguity lies in the blossom. To give elderflower blossom is a sign of humility, kindness and compassion but if you fall asleep under the elder, then the scent from the blossom is said to poison you or draw you into the fairy world.
I am sure you are all familiar with drinks made from elderflowers and berries, but it did you know that the berries are poisonous unless fully ripe? And it was believed that standing on elder leaves could lead to a miscarriage. Despite this, the plant has been used to make jams and jellys as well as drinks.
The wood is hard and easy to polish on the outside, but has a soft, easily removed core. This has lent to it’s use in pipe type instruments such as fairies play and is just one example of the elder embodying opposing concepts. Further, we see that the elder is a strong plant and grows well but is shallow rooted. Even to call it a tree is uncertain, is it a bush or a shrub? It doesn’t really matter to me but further illustrates the ambiguity and puzzling energy of this plant.
Moving on to myth and magic, we find that the elder is a gate between the mundane and the magical realms, the human and the fairy worlds. The elder plant is inhabited by the elder mother (Hyldemor) who’s permission was needed before you could touch the it, let alone cut it down:
give me some of thy wood
then will i give thee some of mine
when i become a tree
If you wanted to pass by, touch or cut the elder tree, it was necessary to perform a ritual. One book I read told of a man who tipped his hat every time he walked past one. The consequences of not carrying out the ceremony seem unclear but perhaps we can gleam suggestions from the dangers of using elder:
- Burning it’s wood would lead to death and disaster and/or bring the devil to sit upon your chimney
- It was banned from use in domestic settings (eg furniture)
- It was said that putting a baby in a cot made of elder would cause Elder Mother to come and pull the child’s legs. Peace could not be achieved until the child was removed from the cot.
- Whipping a child or animal with elder would stunt their growth
- As witches wood, a storm could be brewed by stirring water with an elder wand
But as with all things elder related, there is a flip side. It was said that an elder by the doorstep protects a home, that a flourishing elder on a grave means the dead are happy and elder berries picked on st john’s eve would protect you from magic.
I am unsure where this fits in the benevolent and malevolent scale but a Danish belief says that if you stand under an elder on midsummer’s eve, you’ll see the fairy king ride by.
Elderberries have been called devil’s eyes and yet the plant as a whole has been called the queen of herbs. Nothing is straightforward or as simple as it seems with the elder. As the 13th month in the Celtic Tree Calendar, it is both dying and being reborn, the end and the beginning. Perhaps in light of this, the elder as a plant of contradictions and paradoxes makes more sense.
Elder is juxtapositions, dualities and opposing forces all packed into one delicate seeming plant. A tree of protection and a tree of harm, perhaps this plant is closer to the fairies that it is associated with than you might first suspect…
“English summer begins with elder flowers and ends with elder berries”
None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research. Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year. Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.