Elderberry: The Queen of Herbs

It is said by the wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man. But an evil charm to produce a living thing in the body can also be made, by pronouncing a certain magic and wicked spell over the food or drink taken by any person that an enemy wishes to injure. One should therefore be very cautious in accepting anything to eat from a person of known malicious tongue and spiteful heart, and in the touch of their hands; and an evil spell is in their very presence, and on all they do, say or touch.

Lady Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland, 1919

Elderberry or Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis or S. Ebulus are also called elder, black elder, elder mother, maiden elder, judas tree, queen of herbs, pipe tree, bourtree, bore tree and European elderberry. It’s called caor troim in Gaeilge and caora-dhromain or druman in Scots Gaelic. The word Elder is derived from the latin word aeld which were small elder twigs with a pithy core used for kindling fires and the word sambuca is Greek which means wind instrument. Many modern herbalists have dubbed elderberry the ‘queen of herbs’ and rightfully so. On top of having medicinal value, the elderberry is a great overall perennial shrub to support local wildlife. I have personally chosen to see Elderberry as the protective witch mother archetype bush that our ancestors saw her to be. I have purposefully planted elderberry along the main walkway and gate towards my front door and truly, everyday that I pass her, I feel that protection. It’s almost as if passing through a portal or threshold into more personal and protected ground. I feel this barrier spiritually as much as physically as the elderberry bush grows quite tall very quickly and provides a thick hedgerow in just a couple years time. 

Dioscorides mentioned the elder being called scobie (Sambucus nigra) or ducone (Sambucus ebulus) by the Gauls (near France and Germany) and used to treat inflammations, burns, wounds, ulcers and gout. The fact that it was used to make wind instruments in the classical world as well as being used medicinally by the Gauls lends me to undoubtedly believe the Druids made use of it. The plant was reputed to be sacred to the Druids of Ireland as well and highly regarded for its magical and curative powers.1 In Ireland, it was also used to treat colds2, sciatica pain3, respiratory ailments such as the flu4, sore feet5, burns6, skin conditions, kidney and liver ailments7, inflammations and swellings8, rheumatism9, digestive ailments as well as sore mouths and throats.10 Typically, the berries were used to make wine while the flowers were used for infusions and tea but both served the same purpose and were sometimes used interchangeably. The wine or cordials were somewhat unanimously drunk throughout the isles as a ‘cure all’. There is a lovely Irish folk burn salve that has been preserved and says, “Elderberry makes a good ointment to heal a burn. The bark has to be scraped off and the green substance underneath has to be boiled along with cabbage and butter. It is then strained and when it cools it is quite firm.11

It was also regularly used to make jelly.12 A hot glass of elderberry wine was also said to keep off a chill.13 There is an old garden trick to place elder twigs between cabbage plants to keep the butterflies from laying eggs on the cabbage for the butterflies know that if they lay their eggs here, they may eat the elderberry leaves as well and perish.14 In Scotland and England, it was used sparingly and variously for many other things such as insect bites, kidney troubles, toothaches, indigestion and constipation to name just a few.15 In Wales, elderberry was recommended to treat fever, worms, wounds, swelling, inflammation, constipation, headache, snake bites and burns among other things.16 The elderberries themselves were used unanimously for dyeing purposes and a candidate for references in Irish mythical tales where characters wore blush on the cheeks. In Ogham, the elder tree is ascribed as Ruis which signifies the letter R. In the Auraicept na N-Éces (The Scholar’s Primer) ed. translated by George Calder and John Grant it says, “Tinnem ruccae, intensest of blushes, that is ruis, elderberry, r, from the reddening or shame according to fact, for by r it is written, and it is a reddening that grows in a man’s face ’through the juice of the herb being rubbed under it. Tindi ruccae, an ingot of a blush, again, said of the ruis, elder-berry, from shame or from reddening, for it is by r that it is itself written.

Lady Wilde in her book Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland (1920) mentions a charm for epilepsy involving elder that says to “Cut a twig of elder tree into nine parts, and string the pieces as a necklace to be tied round the patient’s neck; but should the necklace fall and touch the ground, it must be burned, and a new one made.” She mentioned that an ointment was of “great repute” to cure jaundice, that included elder and a “salad made of various herbs by the wise women, called the green ointment.” She told of a story of fairies and that long ago passing through Ireland, they fought a great battle and having no weapons, they flung lumps of butter at one another that became lodged in the branches of the elderberry (possibly to explain a tree fungus).

Interestingly, to then use an elderberry branch as a butter churn handle was said to increase one’s butter yield but if the branch worked in doing so, you mustn’t tell of your secret regarding the fairie magic, lest the spell be broken. There were reputably seven herbs the Irish fairy doctors often worked with of great value and power, one of them being the elder tree. Fairy doctors were community members that specialized in cures specifically meant to undo or transfer ailments (often to an animal) caused by the fairies and were well respected and considered to be incredibly brave healers. Elder flower dew, extractions or infusions were also commonly used in facial treatments thought to improve and preserve complexion. I know many don’t place a lot of credence on Lady Wilde for good reasoning but when her words connect with other folk references connecting elderberry with the fairies, I find it’s hard not mentioning just to highlight the continuity of belief.

Under the Elderberry by Hans Thoma

The Elderberry bush became somewhat unanimously associated with Otherworldly energies, fairies and witches throughout Europe over time. As an example, folklore from Denmark and Germany mentions an elder mother spirit, whom lives within the elderberry itself as well as tea or infusions that were made of her and it was unwise to offend her. Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote about her in one of his stories where he presents her as a benign old woman who appears to a sick boy and shows him visions of foreign lands and his future life. Then he wakes up and realizes it was only a dream. Elder was specifically said to induce vivid dreams, especially of the fairie realm and even more so if you slept under the elder bush or tree. A lot of animistic plant work deals in the realm of our dreamscape and we can often “dream in or call in” the spirit of plants after ingesting them before bed. It was also tradition to ask her permission to take cuttings or berries from the bush. The traditional words were “Old Woman, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree.”

Many scholars feel that because elder wood was often used to make instruments as far back as the classical world, this may have led to a connection with fairies due to their love of music and dance. The instruments, usually pipes, may have been used in an effort to communicate with spirits or the fairies themselves in healing traditions that often included music. Music was included in most Native healing traditions whether it was pipes, bells, a harp or the drum. Elderberry was thought by some to be so favored by the fairies that infant cradles were not to be made out of elder, or you risked your baby being stolen and replaced by a changeling. In Scotland, it was thought that if you stood under an Elder bush on Midsummer’s Eve. or Samhain you may get a glimpse of the fairie king himself. It was considered favorable to have an elderberry bush growing in close proximity to your house and it was thought to protect your dwelling. A.W. Moore in his book Isle of Man (1891) said that “Even at the present time an elder-tree may be observed growing by almost every old cottage in the island. Its leaves were picked on May-eve and affixed to doors and windows to protect the house from witchcraft.” C. De Irvngin in the Camp of Athole (1651) said of Elder that “The common people of the Highlands keep as a great secret in curing wounds the leaves of the elder, which they have gathered the first day of April, for the purpose of disappointing the charms of witches. They affix them to their doors and windows.

As time passed, the references to elder become more negative. It was thought that witches themselves could sometimes turn into an elder tree or may have rode brooms made out of elder and if children were beaten with elder sticks, it would hinder their growth. Various folk tales claimed that witches were stealing milk under the disguise of the tree itself and they bled when cut down. In the English Laws of King Ethelred, (978 – 1016) elder was so notorious with the occult that it was specifically mentioned… “We enjoin, that every priest zealously promote Christianity, and totally extinguish every heathenism; and forbid well worshipings, and necromancies, and divinations, and enchantments, and man worshipings, and the vain practices which are carried on with various spells, and with “frithsplots”, and with elders, and also with various other trees, and with stones, and with many various delusions, with which men do much of what they should not.” One common tale on the Isle of Man said that fairies once inhabited the island, typically in elder trees but were banned for evil-doing.17 Elder is mentioned in one of the famous Irish Triads (850 – 900) translated by Kuno Meyer that says “Three tokens of a cursed site: elder, a corncrake, nettles.” This may have been due to the fact that elder was often one of the first plants to inhabit barren land as it is incredibly prolific and hardy as well as its evolving culturally negative association.

Elder received such a bad reputation in fact that it was thought that to bring elder in the house or to burn elder wood would bring death or horrible luck to any person or household and may even bring about the image of the devil himself in the flames. The wood when burned often screams and splits due to the structure, pithy core and sap of the elder’s wood which may have also lended to this superstition. An old English rhyme warns: ”Elder is the Lady’s tree, burn it not or cursed ye be.” It was also bad luck to walk underneath an elder tree as a child or you may stop growing.18 Looking through historical records, it becomes clear that the elder was slowly transformed from a symbol of protection and healing to a symbol of sorrow over time that was to be avoided by way of Christian influence. I get the impression that because of this influence, many of the sources and references are starkly contrasted in belief during the same time periods. Depending who you were, and what your beliefs were would impact one’s relationship with the plant. It seems mostly to me that historically, in times of the Druids, it would have been seen as protective, magical and healing, and not just in its medicine but in its presence and use in making instruments, and so it presents in that way to me today. I particularly love sensing into the continuation of its use from the Druids in Gaul through to the fairie doctors in Ireland and right up into the present.

Elderberry is in the family Adoxaceae, has many subspecies and is native throughout Europe and North America. Elderberry has ovate, opposite, odd pinnate leaves that are finely serrated along the edges and flowers that are small and white with soft yellow anthers while the berries are dark purple. The flowers typically bloom from mid spring through midsummer and may have been associated with Bealtaine or the Summer Solstice. However, the berries ripen in late summer through early autumn so it may have also been associated with Lughnasadh or Samhain as well. It’s a perennial hardy from zones 4 through 8, grows up to 10 m or 30 ft. and does well in part shade locations, moist but well draining soil and is very hardy once established. Elderberry’s energy is cooling and drying.

Traditionally, almost every part of the elderberry was used, however in modern times, and due to recipes being lost, we only use the berries and flowers. The stems, leaves and roots contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside that is toxic to humans in large enough quantities. The berries and flowers contain it as well but it is low enough for safe usage however, even the berries need to be well cooked before use. The flowers have a pleasant honey flavor while the berries are sweet and bitter. The flowers are typically used for skin products, infusions and wine while the berries are ingested and used as a syrup and decoction. If you’ve planted them, for pollination to occur, you’re going to need two or more plants near one another. Leave elderberries to grow wild the first two years and then cut them back a little each spring to encourage healthier and thicker growth. Small off shoots from the center group of stems at the base of the plant can be trimmed off and propagated as new elderberry bushes in the spring. Just make sure to leave a few roots at the bottom of your newly cut stem. 

Benefits

antiallergenic, antibacterial, anticancer and antitumor, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, immune tonic, laxative, radiation preventative

Recipe

Elderberry Syrup

Ingredients: 32 oz. or 4 cups water, 8 oz. or 1 cup organic dried elderberries, 1 tbsp. cinnamon, 1 tbsp. ginger, 1 tsp. clove powder or cloves, 8 oz. or 1 cup raw honey (or agave syrup for a vegan recipe)

Instructions: Pour water into a large pot and add in the elderberries, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger root. Bring everything to a boil and then reduce your heat to a simmer. Cover your pot and let it cook for approx. 45 minutes. The liquid should not be boiled down past the halfway point from where you started. Once it’s finished cooking, remove from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes. Then, gently mash the berries in the pot with a spoon or masher. Pour the liquid through a strainer or cheesecloth into a glass container of your preference. Add the honey and stir well. This recipe should yield approx. 16 ounces. For adults and children over age 10, the dosage is typically 1 tablespoon a day as a preventative and 3 tablespoons a day during an active illness. Reduce the dosage to 1 teaspoon for children 10 and under. Reduce it again to 1/2 teaspoon for babies aged 6 months to a year.


Footnotes

  1. Uí Conchubhair, Máirín Uí, Flóra Chorca Dhuibhne : aspects of the flora of Corca Dhuibhne, 1995, pg. 207.
  2. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1013, Page 398
  3. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0254, Page 043
  4. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0849, Page 084
  5. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0661, Page 007
  6. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1018, Page 045
  7. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1011, Page 032
  8. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0936, Page 011
  9. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0243, Page 086
  10. K’Eogh, John. Edited by Michael Scott, 1986. An Irish Herbal. 1735. Pg. 61.
  11. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0234, Page 36a
  12. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1026, Page 032 
  13. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0866, Page 327
  14. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0364, Page 360
  15. Allen, David and Hatfield, Gabrielle, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland, 2004, pg. 272.
  16. Myddvai, Meddygon, Pughe, John and Williams, John, The Physicians of Myddvai, Wales, 1861.
  17. Yeeling Evans-Wentz, Walter, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, pg. 165.
  18. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0799, Page 36

One response to “Elderberry: The Queen of Herbs”

  1. I’m studying the Irish Ogham at the moment and I do believe Elder is one of the fid. I don’t want any spoilers, so I’ve bookmarked this article to read once I get there. Learning all about hazel right now, I look forward to reading this though!

Leave a Reply

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: