Elder's delicate, fragrant blossoms, rich hanging fruits and hollow wood helped make it a sacred tree to ancient Europeans, especially the Anglo-Saxons and Danish. It remains one of the most useful and popular hedgerow edibles and is not to be missed when in season.
Elder (Sambucus nigra) frames the British summer. The unmistakeable scent of its delicate flower heads begins to fragrance the hedgerows from mid to late May, while its drooping berry bunches ripen from August through September. It is held in high regard as an edible, being one of just a handful of wild foods that are commonly found on supermarket shelves. Both the berries and flowers are widely used in cordials, spirits, preserves, desserts and sweets.
Nothing tastes quite like elderflower and it is one of the finest foraged ingredients for country wines, Champagnes and vinegars. It is also wonderful for any kind of infusion, so is ideal for making delicately-flavoured indulgences such as Turkish delight. The berries are very high in vitamin C, so are a popular choice for a warming cordial to ward off winter colds, especially when spiced with cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Although the berries are another favourite for wines and vinegars, they are most famed as an ingredient in Pontack sauce, a ketchup that takes a long time to mature but yields a finished product that rivals Worcestershire
sauce. The young, green berries can also be used to make elderberry capers.
As you may expect from a choice and common edible, the elder was an important tree to the ancients, earning a prominent role in folklore. In the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet, elder is known as Ruis. It is the tree of the 13th month, sacred to Samhain (Halloween), the festival that marked the end of the Pagan agricultural year. Elderberry wine was said to be drunk at Samhain, when it was consumed to promote divination and hallucinations and help commune with spirits (Ireland Calling, n.d; Kindred, 1996).
The festival represented a time to honour ancestors, when the veil between the realms of the living and the dead was thinnest. It was also a time to let go of the old and prepare for the new. The elder is linked to this celebration because it is the tree of the crone, the incarnation of the Pagan triple goddess that represents wise energy and the end of a cycle. Because the elder grows easily and rapidly, often from seeds dropped by birds, it is also a natural symbol for regeneration.
The elder mother's protection and curse
In Scandanavian folklore, the tree was also linked to a crone-like figure, the dryad Hyldemöer, the Elder Mother. While she could bestow powers of protection, elder wood was not to be harvested without her permission, or she would take revenge. In Denmark, the tree was particularly associated with magic, and there was an old belief that anyone who stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by (Grieve, 1931). Its cultural significance in the country was noted by Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Anderson, who wrote a story featuring Hyldemöer, The Little Elder-Tree Mother, in 1888.
Like other white-flowering trees such as the hawthorn and rowan, elder is a hedgerow plant that has attracted an abundance of myth. Superstition advised against sleeping under an elder, not just because of the risk of being abducted by the fairies, but in case you never woke up, as the scent of the leaves was thought to have mildly narcotic effects (Treesforlife.org, n.d.; Child, 1845). In Ireland, the elder was considered a sacred tree and, like hawthorn, superstition protected it from being cut down.
A musical tree
Elder also has a long association with music making, no doubt enhancing its link with the merry-making fairies. Its scientific name Sambuca is of Greek origin and was first recorded by Pliny The Elder (AD77). The sambuca was an ancient harp, whose name was later corrupted to "sackbut". The small, shrill instrument was said to be well-used by the Romans, who supposedly made it from elder wood.
Mrs Grieve challenges this in her Modern Herbal (1931), suggesting that the elder would be more suited to a pan pipe or flute. She is likely correct on two counts: elder does lend itself particularly well to making whistles and pipes, as the branches contain a soft core that can be hollowed out, leaving behind the hard, easily-polished wood. It is also recognised that there is some confusion in the etymology and there is also an instrument called the sackbut known as a predecessor to the trombone. Elder's hollow wood also has other uses. Nicholas Culpeper (1653) and Pliny, more than a millennium apart, recorded that it was popular with young boys for making pop guns. Reference to this characteristic is reflected in some colloquial names, such as bore-tree and bour-tree, which survives in Scotland (Grieve, 1931).
“Elder”, meanwhile, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “Aeld” meaning fire, as the hollowed-out branches could be blown through to enhance flames (Grieve, 1931). Elder wood itself, however, was not for burning. Superstition dictated that it would “raise the devil” or bring disaster. Gypsies were forbidden to use the wood to light their camp fires, while collectors of firewood would check their faggot bundles to ensure no elder had found its way in (Grieve, 1931). This may well have been founded in common sense, as it's possible that burning the wood would cause the release of cyanide gas, which could be toxic in enclosed spaces.
Judas and the crucifixion
As with most trees revered by Pagans, the elder later worked its way into Christian myth, and was said to be the tree on which Judas was hanged. This was a common belief in the medieval period, and later referenced by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour Lost. Gerard, writing in his 1597 herbal, however, identifies the offending tree as Cercis Siliquastrum, a type of alder rather than elder, which is still known as the Judas tree to this day. It’s claimed the jelly ear fungus (Hirneola auricula Judae), which commonly grows on elder, is also known as the Judas ear because of this link. The innocent elder was also implicated as the wood used to make the cross, with an old rhyming couplet running:
Bour tree - Bour tree: crooked rong
Never straight and never strong;
Ever bush and never tree
Since our Lord was nailed on thee
Despite being considered a symbol of protection, used widely in the 17th century for defence against witches (Cole, 1656), the Christian myths led to a darker perception of the elder. It was planted on graves, apparently blossoming if the soul of the dead was happy, while “in some parts” it was a custom for hearse drivers to carry a whip made of elder wood (Grieve, 1931).
A favourite in folk medicine
Elder has long been a useful plant in folk medicine, leading the German physician Michael Ettmueller (1644-1683) to describe it as “the medicine chest of the country people”. Green elder ointment, made with the leaves, was a domestic remedy for bruises, sprains, chilblains and for applying to wounds (Grieve, 1931). The flowers were believed to lower fever and the berries to treat colds and flu. The bark was recognised as an emetic and also used as an expectorant and diuretic. Its other miscellaneous uses include as an insect repellent, and as a dye, with different colours being produced by the branches, leaves, roots and berries.
Though studies on elder are limited, elderberry liquid has been shown to have an anti-microbial affect on certain strains of streptococcus bacteria, as well as an inhibitory affect on influenza viruses (Krawitz at al., 2011). In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in Norway, flu patients given 15ml elderberry syrup were found to recover four days earlier than those given the placebo (Zackay-Rones et al., 2004).
Notes for foragers
Some mild caution is required when foraging for this plant. While elderflowers are edible, elderberries should only be consumed after cooking, fermenting or pickling. The stems, leaves, wood and roots are all toxic to humans as they contain cyanide and lecithins, while the fruits also contain tannins. Care should be taken to make sure that berries or flowers are separated cleanly from the stems when preparing for cooking.
Elder is abundant and can be usually be found in hedgerows and woodland edges, where it particularly favours ditches and small streams. It is a tolerant plant, able to adapt to varied soil types, salty conditions and levels of atmospheric pollution, hence its frequent appearance at roadsides (Pfaf.org, n.d). It can grow as either a large bush or a tree, reaching a height and spread of around 19ftx19ft (6mx6m). It can also be found as a purple, ornamental variant with pink flower heads — great for making pink-tinged elderflower champagne!
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