The first flowers of my Lady Elder have just caught my attention, they have just begun to open on April 30th very early in my experience, so I thought; time to investigate the tree herself..
The elder is a member of the Sambucus genus which consists of some 20 species of small trees and shrubs. The common elder, Sambucus nigra, is native to Eurasia and northern Africa and has a rough rugged looking bark, and pretty white/cream fragrant flowers, which later develop into bunches of small dark fruits or elderberries. These flowers normally appear early June, however along with every other flowering plant here in the South East of England, they are rather early.
According to Fred Hageneder in The Living Wisdom of Trees, ‘All parts of the elder can be used in medicine. Traditionally the inner bark has been used as a purgative and an emetic, while the leaves have been applied to bruises, sprains and headaches.’ However, today it is primarily the flowers and berries which are used. Something I hadn’t noticed previously is that according to Hageneder, a tea made from the flowers ‘has an anti-inflammatory effect on the sinuses, and also helps hayfever.’ He also states that ‘Combined with yarrow, the blossoms are an excellent treatment for colds because they tone the mucous membranes, promote perspiration, and thus lower temperature.’ The berries are said to stimulate the immune system as well as possessing ant–viral qualities, very useful if you ask me.
It is very strange that for a small tree the elder has such a lot of folklore attached. According to Hageneder ‘The traditional personifications of the elder spirit, the Scandinavian Hyldemoer (“Elder Mother”) and the old German Frau Holle (“Mistress Elder”), are late expressions of the archaic White Goddess, a benevolent deity of light, life and wisdom.’ According to Hageneder the elder is the chosen tree of the Goddess, and therefore she bestowed abundant healing powers on her chosen one.
I thought at his point it may be fitting to see what Robert Graves has to say on such matters: I found surprisingly little. He does say it is associated with witches, and ‘In English folklore to burn logs of elder ‘brings the Devil into the house’. ‘Its white flowers, which are best at midsummer, make the elder another aspect of the White Goddess, and the same is true of the rowan.’ (not so this year, we are not out of spring yet) He also indicates that it keeps its fruit well into December and is a waterside tree. Neither are true in my neck of the woods, elder grows on the edge of woodlands, hedgerows and in the not too manicured gardens like mine. And the birds have usually stripped the trees of the berries long before I have organised myself well enough to think it is now wine making time, when off I trundle to the hedgerow, and return rather disappointed. However he does add that ‘in Ireland elder sticks, rather than ashen ones, are used by witches as magic horses.’ Who knows? Graves also states that; ‘So unlucky is the elder that in Langland’s Piers Ploughman, Judas is made to hang himself on an elder tree. Spencer couples the elder with funereal cypress, and T Scott writes in his Philomythie (1616)
The cursed elder and the fatal yew
With witch (rowan) and nightshade in their shadows grew.
So I return to Hageneder, who indicates that ‘the elder has also been the traditional guardian tree of the household and farmyard. In countries as diverse as Russia, the Baltic states, Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles, and throughout the ages, it is said that the good “house spirit” of the home resided in the elder bush, and as recently as the 19th century it was a widespread custom to bring her an offering of water, milk or beer, together with cake or bread, at least once a week and even daily,’
He goes onto say that; ‘The advance of Christianity led to changes in many such folk traditions. In some cases trees that had been most venerated in pre-Christian times were recast in a negative light once the religion became established. Thus, in the popular imagination, the physical setting of the elder as its actual character gradually became associated with evil, witches and devils.’
However we view the elder now, I still treat her with great respect and ask very nicely when in need of her wonderful, wood, with its soft pith that can be poked out so that a hollow centred stick remains, I thank you Lady Elder.