, , , , ,

Elder blossom is prolific this year, summoning attention to the small shrubby trees that for most of the year just blend quietly into their surroundings. But no matter its appearance, the Elder is not at all what it seems to be and this common inhabitant of our woods, hedgerows and waysides is steeped to the tips of its twigs in ancient magic, rich and mysterious mythology and legend. Throughout history its character has been portrayed with ambivalence : kindly and beneficent one the one hand, spiteful and malevolent on the other.

The Elder tree

Scientific name: Sambucus niger Family: Adoxaceae (reclassified from Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle) Height: to 10m; deciduous Flowering: Early SummerNative to Great Britain & Ireland

Elder tree in full blossom - Little Orme

Elder tree in full blossom – Little Orme

Leaves are a dull green, compound in shape, usually 5-7 leaflets are unstalked and arranged in opposite pairs with a single leaf at the end. The leaf edges are serrated or toothed.  The leaves are poisonous too. The purplish leaf buds have spiky scales which likens them to a pineapple in shape. The berries are poisonous eaten raw.

Elder blossom and leaves

Elder blossom and leaves

Folklore & Mythology

” English summer begins with elder flowers  and ends with elder berries”

In the Celtic lunar calendar, or Ogham calender, 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.

Elder acquired ill repute from its traditional use, and subsequent cursing, as the wood of the Cross upon which Christ was crucified and then as the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself.  It became an emblem of death, trouble and sorrow. But Elder’s sinister reputation  is far older than Christianity and is thought to have sprung from ancient and now forgotten animistic beliefs.

In German and Scandinavian lore, the tree was inhabited by the Elder Mother (Hyldemöer)  or Lady Elder, whose permission must be sought before the tree was even touched, let alone cut. In order to make use of the magical power of the tree, the correct prayers and offerings would have to be made otherwise Hyldemöer would take her revenge.

Elder is not for burning

To burn elder wood brought death and disaster and ‘raised the devil’. It was never used as firewood or burned by hedgers after it had been cut. In the Fens the tree was never touched after dark. If elder twigs were added to a fire, it showed its displeasure by going out. In North Staffordshire to burn elder ” brings the Old Lad (the devil) on top of the chimney”. Food cooked over an elder-wood fire, should you be foolish enough to light one, would not be fit to eat.

Elder tree with cliff of the Little Orme in the background

Elder tree with cliff of the Little Orme in the background

The Witch’s 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. (The most powerful wand in the realms of the  Harry Potter novels is a wand made of sambucus known as the “Elder Wand”.) In Ireland witches rode elder sticks, not broomsticks. A story was told in the village of Syresham in Northamptonshire, (which as a matter of interest to me, is very near where I was born and lived as a child), about a man who cut a stick for his son from an elder tree: he was horrified to see that the tree bled. On their way home they met a neighbour, a woman reputed to be a witch. Around her arm was a freshly blood-stained bandage…  Witches conjured rough weather by stirring a bucket of water with an elder twig.

Frothy elderflowers

Frothy elderflowers

The scent of the white elder flowers was said to poison anyone foolish enough to fall asleep beneath the tree. 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 then was of 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 trees were planted by houses to protect them from lightning and evil spirits and promoted fertility. A lucky self-sown elder should be given a place to grow.  Welsh housewives made stencilled patterns around elder leaves on newly washed and whitened kitchen floors to keep witches away. Elder was often planted in graveyards and crosses of elder used to be placed on new graves: a flourishing elder showed that the dead were happy and, more importantly, would not walk.

Elder berries collected on St.John’s Eve, which is just before Midsummer, saved their possessor from witchcraft and awarded magic powers.

Traditional medicine

Elder has traditionally played a part in a myriad of  cures. According to Coles in Adam and Eden (1656):

“There is hardly a Disease from the Head to the Foot but it cures. It is profitable for the Headache, for Ravings and Wakings, Hypocondriack and Melancholly, the Falling-sickness, Catarrhes, Deafnesse, Faintnesse and Feacours.”

In Shropshire, a necklace of elder would be hung around the neck of a patient afflicted with Whooping Cough. In Somerset warts were treated by cutting a leaf with a number of slits corresponding to the number of the patient’s warts; the leaf was rubbed over the afflictions and buried. As the leaf decayed, the warts vanished. In Cambridgeshire an elder twig was chewed for toothache and then stuck into a wall with the message “Depart the evil spirit”. In Gloucestershire it was carried to ward off rheumatism.

Elder has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and it continues to play a part in modern herbal medicine. The berries and flowers are  the safest parts of the tree to use (the bark can be highly 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. The berries are also a good source of Vitamin C.

Culinary Uses 

Elder berries are poisonous if eaten raw

Elder berries are poisonous if eaten raw

Elder has a great deal of human uses over history, mostly for food and drink. Elderflower cordial and ‘champagne’ is made from the flowers which can also be dipped in batter and fried as ‘fritters’. The berries are used to make rich wine.

Other Uses

Washing her face in dew gathered from elderflowers was believed to enhance and preserve a woman’s youthful beauty, and derivatives of elder continue to be used in skin cleansers and eye lotions.

It is thought that the name elder comes the Anglo-saxon ‘aeld’ meaning fire because the hollow stems could be used to blow air into the centre of a fire like bellows. When I was a child we picked straight pieces of elder twig, removed the pith from the centre and used the hollowed tubes as pea shooters. By the same principle, wood from the elder tree lends itself well to the making of whistles, pipes, chanters and other musical instruments, as the soft pithy core is easily removed to create hollow pipes of a pale, hard, easily-polished wood.  Hollowed elderberry twigs have traditionally been used as spiles to tap maple trees for syrup.

Wood from the elder tree lends itself well to the making of whistles, pipes, chanters and other musical instruments, as the branches contain a soft pithy core which is easily removed to create hollow pipes of a pale, hard, easily-polished wood.

The pith of elder has been used by watchmakers for cleaning tools before intricate work.

The elder is not a common tree across the Scottish Highlands, but despite its relative scarcity, the parts of the tree used for dying were important to the Harris tweed industry, with blue and purple dyes being derived from the berries, yellow and green from the leaves and grey and black from the bark.

Uses for wildlife

The berries are a very valuable food resource for many birds.  Elders are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Brown-tail, Buff Ermine, Dot Moth, Emperor Moth, the Engrailed, Swallow-tailed Moth and the V-pug.

Dead elder wood is the preferred habitat of the mushroom Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as “Judas’ ear fungus”.