The berry of the elderberry plant has provided medicinal benefits worldwide for thousands of years. Hippocrates called the Elder tree his “medicine chest’. The native North American and European shrub is used to relieve stress, various stomach ailments, high cholesterol, congestion and fights the flu – all strains. Elderberries also promote a healthy complexion and strengthens the body’s immune system. The results of a clinical trial, published in the International Journal of Medical Research in 2004, showed flu patients given one tablespoon of elderberry extract four times per day recovered in an average of 3.1 days, compared to 7.1 days for those given a placebo. A 1995 study published by the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that nearly 90% of flu patients given elderberry extract were completely free of symptoms within two to three days, as compared to at least six days with a placebo.
The Elder is one of the most revered of all herbs. Romany people consider it a tree so sacred, that they never cut it down. Partly because if its medicinal properties, and partly because the holy cross was supposedly made from Elder wood.
A wealth of folk-lore, romance and superstition centre round this English tree. Tradition had it that it was very unlucky to cut down an Elder tree or remove any branch or twig without first kneeling with head bowed low and repeating:”Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest” and even today there are those who work the land that will not cut it down, they will work round the Elder first rather than risk the wrath of the displeased spirit that is thought to dwell within the tree. Cradles or other infant furniture was never to be made from the Elder as it would have placed the infant in great danger when the Elder Mother came to reclaim her Sacred Wood.
Folklore abounds with many references to the Elder Mother (Hylde-Moer) or Elder Queen (Hylde-Vinde). Elder derives the abilities to drive away malevolent spirits and thwart the darker, more sorcerous arts when used in protective magical measures. Nordic myth tells the tale of Hel, who is the Queen of the Underworld, and she keeps the spirits of the dead in an Elder tree until it is time for them to be reborn. The Elder bush or tree defines the boundary between the Under World and the Middle World. The Elder also acts as a threshold or as a gateway of sorts to otherworlds.
The Elder also functions in an erotic manner as witnessed in the lyrics of certain folks songs.
“Parsely, potherb, grows in my garden.
[Name of the Girl] is the Bride, she shall wait no longer.
Behind an Elder bush, she gave her love a kiss
Red wine, white wine, tomorrow she’ll be mine.”
In earlier days, the Elder Tree was supposed to ward off evil influence and give protection from witches, a popular belief held in widely-distant countries.
The Russians believe that Elder-trees drive away evil spirits, and the Bohemians go to it with a spell to take away fever.
The Sicilians think that sticks of its wood will kill serpents and drive away robbers, and the Serbs introduce a stick of Elder into their wedding ceremonies to bring good luck.
In England it was thought that the Elder was never struck by lightning, and a twig of it tied into three or four knots and carried in the pocket was a charm against rheumatism. A cross made of Elder and fastened to cowsheds and stables was supposed to keep all evil from the animals.
Cole’s Art of Simpling (1656) tells us:
“In order to prevent witches from entering their houses, the common people used to gather Elder leaves on the last day of April and affix them to their doors and windows, and the tree was formerly much cultivated near English cottages for protection against witches.”
Green Elder branches were also buried in a grave to protect the dead from witches and evil spirits, and in some parts it was a custom for the driver of the hearse to carry a whip made of Elder wood. In some of the rural Midlands, it is believed that if a child is chastised with an Elder switch, it will cease to grow, owing, in this instance, to some supposed malign influence of the tree. On the other hand, Lord Bacon commended the rubbing of warts with a green Elder stick and then burying the stick to rot in the mud, and for erysipelas, it was recommended to wear about the neck an amulet made of Elder ‘on which the sun had never shined.’
In Denmark we come across the old belief that he who stood under an Elder tree on Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by with his entourage.
Folkard, in Plant-Lore, Legends and Lyrics, tells us:
“The pith of the branches when cut in round, flat shapes, is dipped in oil, lighted, and then put to float in a glass of water; its light on Christmas Eve is thought to reveal to the owner all the witches and sorcerers in the neighbourhood.”
Elder trees are often found in old cottage gardens where they were believed to give protection from witches. Although the Elder has also been revered as a magical tree. There’s tons of myth and lore that surrounds this most alluring of the sacred trees that were honoured and worked with by witches of the past and of today as well. Dame Elder or Hylde-Moer, the Elder Tree Mother, has a most intriguing history with Witches. Here’s a story about the Rollright Stones on Oxfordshire, that involves the Elder:
The word ‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld. In Anglo-Saxon days we find the tree called Eldrun, which becomes Hyldor and Hyllantree in the fourteenth century. One of its names in modern German – Hollunder – is clearly derived from the same origin. In Low-Saxon, the name appears as Ellhorn. which meant ‘fire,’ the hollow stems of the young branches having been used for blowing up a fire: the soft pith pushes out easily and the tubes thus formed were used as pipes – hence it was often called Pipe-Tree, or Bore-tree and Bour-tree, the latter name remaining in Scotland and being traceable to the Anglo-Saxon form, Burtre.
Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, referring to it as a symbol of grief, speaks slightingly of it as ‘the stinking Elder,’ yet, although many people profess a strong dislike to the scent of its blossom, the shrub is generally beloved by all who see it. In countrysides where the Elder flourishes it is certainly one of the most attractive features of the hedgerow, while its old-world associations have created for it a place in the hearts of English people.