Updated: May 31, 2018
Elder - Sambucus nigra
Planet - Venus
Element - Water
Deities - Holda, Venus
Powers - exorcism, protection, healing, prosperity, sleep
The elder tree is a common sight in the British countryside and gardens with its creamy white frothy blossoms in the summer, and black/purple berries in the Autumn. It is considered to be unlucky to cut down or burn elder as the Elder Mother was thought to reside within it, and it should never be cut without her permission. Before cutting any wood from it the following formula was recited while kneeling before the tree, prior to making the first cut:'Lady Elhorn, give me of thy wood,and I will give thee of minewhen I become a tree.'
Always remember to thank the tree after you have cut any wood from it as well and if possible leave an offering for the tree spirit.
The elder is a medicine chest, from the mud growing at its roots, traditionally thought to have special power in treating toothache; its bark being used as a painkiller and emetic; the leaves being used to treat eczema and sores; the flowers for fevers, coughs and colds and the berries to boost the immune system.
In the Forest of Dean, elderflower wine was regarded as such a good all-round cure, that it was given for any ailment for a couple of days, if the patient showed no improvement after that, then it was time to call the doctor! Modern herbalists use the berries for their anti-viral properties and to stimulate the immune system, however don't eat the berries or seeds raw as they will make you sick.
Elderflower water in centuries gone by was used by women to clear freckles, ease sunburn and soften and whiten skin. It is still used today in some skin and body lotions. Going back even further, the Romans used elderberries as a hair dye.
Branches from the elder tree contain a soft pithy core which is easily removed to create a whistle or pipes, it is said the faeries use them for their music. Children also used to use the hollow branches as pop guns.
The best time to encounter faeries is under an elder bush on Midsummer eve, when the faery King and Queen and their followers may be seen passing by. Do not fall asleep under the elder though, you may be kidnapped and taken to faeryland as Thomas the Rhymer was. Cradles were never made of elder wood as it was thought a faery would replace your child with a changeling.
In common with other trees with white blossom, such as hawthorn and rowan, the elder has a strong connection with many Mother Goddess figures. Like rowan, elder was seen as a protective tree and it was auspicious if it was growing in your garden, especially if it was self-seeded.
The rowans place was by the front door and the elder at the back door to keep evil spirits and other negative influences from entering your home.
An elder tree in your garden is also said to bring prosperity to the household, and sticks placed around the house will protect it against snakes and burglars! The aroma of the leaves also keeps flies away which is another reason why it's a great idea to have one near your back door which in many homes leads to the kitchen, the last place you want flies.
Bunches of leaves were hung in doorways, livestock barns and attached to horse’s harnesses for the same reason.
The name 'elder' may have been derived from 'Hylde- Moer', the Scandinavian deity associated with the tree. It has also been suggested that the name may derive from the Anglo-Saxon 'Aeld' meaning 'Fire', possibly referring to the pithy core of the wood which was used as tinder.
Elder has the power to force an evil magician to release any enchantments or spells they may have cast against you.
Carry the berries to protect you from evil and negativity.
Tie a twig of elder into three or four knots and carry in your pocket to prevent rheumatism.
Elder flowers can be used in wedding bouquets and decorations to bring good luck to the couple.
It is said if a pregnant woman kisses an elder tree it will bring good fortune for the baby.
Place elder leaves under your pillow or add to a sleep pillow to help you get a good night’s sleep.
In the past, it was thought that warts could be cured by rubbing them with a green elder twig then burying it in mud to rot in some rural areas, it was believed that chastising a child with an elder switch would stop the child growing. The elder is one of the Celtic Ogham trees, its Ogham name is Rui and its energies are 'transformation, renewal, regeneration and wisdom.'
I feel the elder is a tree of wisdom, and if approached and treated with respect it has a very warm and loving energy which is shown in its gifts of medicine and food. I often pick the flowers in Spring and berries in Autumn from a local tree (after asking permission and leaving an offering, usually plant fertilizer)
I use the flowers in a tea for colds and flu. Just mix equal amounts of elder flowers, peppermint and yarrow and keep in a jar. When you feel a cold coming on make a tea using 1 tbsp. of the mix.
With the berries, I make elderberry syrup: Remove the berries from the stems with a fork and place in a large saucepan with half their volume of water. Simmer and stir for 20 minutes and mash the berries up with a potato masher or fork whilst it's cooking. Allow to cool a bit them pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a jug. Measure the juice and for every 500ml of juice add 250g muscovado sugar or honey, a stick of cinnamon, cloves, a piece of fresh ginger root and a few slices of honey. Simmer for 20 minutes. Strain again and pour into sterilized bottles. Label with the name and date. Dose: 1 tsp neat every few hours for colds, coughs and flu or drink it with hot water.
Elderflower image from the Woodland Trust