Elder Tree and Elderberry Folklore

By Phoenix of Elder Mountain – I wanted to preface this article with a warning to make sure “not to eat uncooked Elderberries”. This is very dangerous because the glycosides in the seeds cause cyanide poisoning and for some even handling the leaves and branches can sometimes create a bad rash that can last up to a year if you have sensitive skin, so wear gloves when picking them.

Juniper and I at Elder Mountain, went into the mountains close by to pick Elderberries last month and she made her yearly herbal remedy for the winter and it tastes delightful as a medicine. I thought I would look up the Elder Tree after our two days with the trees. I had said thank you to the Elder Trees every time I cut the berries off the branches and felt it was very important to honor the tree this way. After I gathered the information about the folklore, I am happy that I did. 

Elder as one of the oldest folklore trees, and it is a tree that has power to ward off evil, just like Hawthorn. They both give protection, while other beliefs say that witches often congregate under these trees, especially when it is full of fruit. If an elder tree was cut down, a spirit known as the “Elder Mother” would be released and she would take her revenge. The tree could only safely be cut while chanting a rhyme to the Elder Mother.

When we were young kids in the early 1940s, if one of us got a heat stroke, my grandmother would place elder berry leaves in warm water and a cloth. She would then place the leaves on our forehead and wrap the cloth around our head to cover the leaves like a bandage. I think that it could be an Indian remedy because it worked. In the our Cajun French language the Black Elder Berry is called Sureau.” ~ Loyman Melancon 

Black Elderberry Sambucus-nigra
Black Elderberry Sambucus-nigra

In spite of the confusion surrounding the generic name for the elder tree and its use for musical instruments, the elder tree is mostly employed for medicinal purposes. Sambucus was often cited in the writings of ancient healers and scholars. Hippocrates, an ancient physician, and Pliny the Elder, a naturalist, both cite Sambucus as a plant useful for its potential to relieve numerous maladies. Some say that to dream of Elderberries denotes sickness that would come to the person or the person who dreams for others. The tree is under the dominion of the goddess Venus.

According to Elder Tree Folklore, this sacredness came from the spirit or goddess and she is believed to reside in the plant. Hylde Moer, in Danish, or Elder Mother, had the power to protect and to harm. The power of the Elder Mother turned the plant’s natural gifts (flowers, berries and wood) into blessings if she wished. From Elder Mother, the various parts of the tree were imbued with power. For example, the leaves could protect a home or a person from evil spirits when dried and hung in a doorway or around the neck. It is a particularly good omen if an elder grew near a dwelling, as the tree’s proximity to the home would protect the household.

Taking parts of the elder for ritual, herbal or protective use required asking the Elder Mother for permission. If the Elder Mother was not asked, it was believed she would seek revenge on the offending person. To ask permission of the Elder Mother involved making an offering to the tree, kneeling with head bowed and speaking the following words:

“Lady Ellhorn, give me of thy wood,
And I will give thee of mine,
When I become a tree.”

Traditionally, in Sicily, the elder is the preferred wood for driving out serpents and warding off thieves and against those who do harm, male or female.

Elderberry Flowers

In German folklore, of all the forest spirits, only Elder Mother, it is said, was able to mend any injuries effected upon elder trees. She was a ‘Waldgeister’, a type of spirit which inhabited the forest in large numbers. Like all Waldgeisters, Hylde-moer was kind-natured, and the only forest spirit to know the power and formula for medicinal plants. Before cutting down an elder tree, it was said that permission had to be asked for and granted from her to avoid misfortune.

Germany called the traditional tree the ‘Elsbeer tree’ or ‘Dragon tree’. Hanging branches of this tree in houses or in any buildings belonging to a family on ‘walpurgis night’ was seen as protection against the darker forces at play. Germany Elder is regarded with great respect. From its leaves a centrifuge is made: from its berries a sort of sour preserve, and is a wonder-worker; the moon-shaped clusters of flowers are narcotic, and are used in baking small cakes. The smell of the leaves and blossoms has the reputation of causing giddiness, whence arises the saying that…

“He who goes to sleep under an Elder-tree will never wake.”

 Briar Rose by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).jpgThe 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 neighborhood. Since this tree drives away spirits, it is often planted by the side of manure sheds, keeping them damp by its shade, and also protecting from evil influences the cattle in the adjoining shed.
 

It is commonly believed that he who injures an Elder-tree will suffer from its vengeance. “Holderstock” (Elderstock) is a name of endearment given by a lover to his beloved, and is derived from Hulda, the old goddess of love.

In England, the Elder has been regarded with superstition from very early times, and is looked upon as a tree of bad omen. Branches of Elder were formerly considered to be typical of disgrace and woe. In the Canones editi sub Edgaro Rege it is enacted that every priest forbid the vain practices that are carried on with Elder-sticks, and also with various other trees.

In Gloucestershire, and some other counties, the peasantry will on no account burn Elder or Ellan-wood, the reason being, that it was supposed to be one of the trees from which the wood of the Cross was formed. In a rare tract on Gloucestershire superstitions, a figure is given of an Elder-wood cross borne constantly about the person as a cure for rheumatism.

This cross consisted of a small piece cut from a young shoot just above and below a joint, so as to leave the bud projecting at each end of it, after the fashion of a rude cross. To be efficient, the Elder must have grown in consecrated ground. In Tortworth and other Gloucestershire churchyards are to be found such trees, and applications for pieces of them are still made.

In Sussex, an Elder-stick, with three, four, or more knots upon it, is carried in the pocket as a charm against rheumatism. The Elder is considered safe from the effects of lightning. In Huntingdonshire, there exists the Danish belief in a being called the Elder-Mother, so that it is not always safe to pluck the flowers. No household furniture should be made of Elder-wood, least of all a cradle, for some evil will certainly befall the child sleeping in it.

In common with other trees with white blossom, such as hawthorn and rowan, the Elder had strong associations with Faery and Goddess centered cultures. The Hawthorne, the Rowan and the Elder are thought of as being a protective tree, and it was auspicious if it was growing near one’s dwelling, especially if it had seeded itself there.

If the rowan’s place was traditionally at the front of the house, the elder’s was at the back door, to keep evil spirits and other negative influences from entering the home. The aroma exuded by the elder’s leaves has long been known to repel flies, so this folklore may have been borne out of the need to keep such insects, and the diseases that they carried, away from the kitchen and food.

Bunches of leaves were hung by doorways, in livestock barns, and attached to horses’ harnesses for the same reason. Elder was traditionally planted around dairies and it was thought to be efficacious in keeping the milk from ‘turning’. Cheese cloths and other linen involved in dairying were hung out to dry on elder trees, and the smell they absorbed from the leaves may have contributed to hygiene in the dairy.

Elderberry-Rosehip Jam.jpg
Elderberry-Rosehip Jam 

Elder trees were also traditionally planted by bake houses as protection from the Devil (what with all those hellishly hot ovens within!) and loaves and cakes put out to cool under the elders. Any foods left out overnight under an elder however were considered a gift to the faeries. 

Hylde-Moer the Scandinavian matriarchal tree spirit and deity associated with the Elder, whose indwelling spirit was said to be the basis of the protective qualities of ‘Mother Elder’. 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, or the hollowed out branches used in bellows.

In Denmark, an elder twig put in the mouth was traditionally thought to drive out evil spirits and thus could cure toothache. Also in Denmark, if you were to stand under an elder on Midsummer’s Eve you could see the Elf-king and his host. A similar tradition existed in Scotland where it was said to happen on All Hallows or Samhain.

The elder is not a common tree across the Scottish Highlands, being confined to pockets of deeper, richer soils. Its Gaelic names, ruis or droman occur only rarely in Scottish place names, such as Strath Rusdale in Easter Ross and Barrach-an-dromain on Mull. Droman may have given rise to the word dromanach which is a specialised wooden peg used to secure thatch on roofs traditionally made from elder wood. Despite its relative scarcity, the parts of the tree used for dying were important to the Harris tweed industry, with blue and purple dyes being derived from the berries, yellow and green from the leaves and grey and black from the bark.

The Elder Mother is an elder-guarding being in folklore known by a variety of names, such as the Danish Hyldemoer “Elder-Mother” and the Lincolnshire names Old Lady. In Folklore the Elder Mother is the guardian of the Elder trees, and it was said, until recent times in various parts of England and Scandinavia that to take wood from the elder tree one would have to ask the Elder Mother first, or else ill luck. The one who picks the berries or cuts down the tree would have to say:

 

elderberry

One such story of the Elder Mother’s revenge concerns a writer earlier in the 20th century. When calling in on the mother of a sick child, the mother told him: “It were all along of my master’s thick head. It were in this ‘ow’t’ rocker come off its cradle, and he hadn’t no more gumption than to make a new ‘un out on illerwood (elder wood) without axing the Old Lady’s leave, and in course she didn’t like that, and she came and pinched the wean that outrageous he were a’most black in the face; but I bashed un off, and putten an eshen on, and the wean is gallus as owt again.”

A tale from Northamptonshire tells of man who cut a stick from an elder, and saw that the tree was bleeding. Later he meets the local witch and sees that she has a bloodied bandage on her arm.

Another tale not only has the elder-tree witch (sometimes later claimed to be various famous characters such as Mother Shipton) as the somewhat dubious heroine, but also with saving England from being conquered by a king and his knights (sometimes said to be Danes).

This is also the story of how the Rollright Stones that lie on the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire came to be. When the king and his knights marched towards Long Compton they came upon a witch who told the king:

 
“Seven long strides thou shalt take,
And if Long Compton thou shalt see,
King of England thou shalt be.”
 
The king however went on wards saying
“Stick, Stock, Stone as the King of England
I shall be known.”
 
However, on the King’s seventh stride
a hill rose up before Long Compton 
making him unable to see the town.
The witch was there again with her chant:
 
“As Long Compton thou canst not see
 
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up stick and stand still stone
For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
and I myself an elder tree.”
 
And thus the king and his knights
were turned to stone and the witch

turned herself into an elder tree.

Elder continued to be put to such a wide range of medicinal uses. Washing her face in dew gathered from elder flowers was believed to enhance and preserve a woman’s youthful beauty, and derivatives of elder continue to be used in skin cleansers such as Eau de Sareau, and eye lotions. Elderberry wine, elderflower cordial and dried elderflowers for infusion are all still commercially available. A couple of cups of hot elderflower tea before bedtime helps to bring on a cleansing sweat to combat cold and ‘flu-like symptoms, and elderberry drinks were formerly prescribed to sooth throat complaints.

In England, it was thought that the elder tree could never be hit by lightning and that carrying the twigs of an elder could protect their bearer from rheumatism. Farmers used to protect their animals from evil by placing a cross made from elder on their cow-sheds and barns.

Sambucus nigra ElderberryAccording to Irish traditions, the elder (or the ‘bour-tree’, as it is sometimes called in the north of Ireland) is considered to be an evil tree. “It is a bad thing to give a man a scelp of that. If you do his hand will grow out of his grave.” Elder wood is said to be cursed. Superstition says that you must never put elder on a fire, because you’ll see the devil in the flame. It is also believed that elder wood should not be used to make boats or infant cradles, as the wood is so fragile that the fairies could easily steal the baby and substitute it with a changeling.

The European Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) is a deciduous shrub that grows between twenty and thirty feet tall and can be pruned and trained into a tree form. It prefers a cool climate and is common in hedgerows in Ireland and England, and is cultivated for commercial use throughout Europe. The American Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis), also a deciduous shrub, rarely exceeds 13 feet in height and is more shrub-like.

The American elderberry is hardy throughout the US and Canada and is commonly found growing wild in low-lying areas, along streams and lakes, in fence rows, in ditches and along road sides, too, the American elderberry produces new suckers each year and will form dense hedges. Its also is found at in the mountains. Both varieties produce the deep purple/black berries (hence the name), used in wines, extracts, syrups and in pies, jams and other foods.

A common misconception is that the European Elder is the edible variety of Black Elderberry and that the American Elder is not edible, or does not contain the same constituents for which the European Black Elderberry is known.

In fact, they are now considered to be different varieties of the same genus-species, and current research on the American Black Elderberry indicates that it may actually contain more of the anthocyanin’s and polyphenols thought to give elderberry its health benefits. 

 
The seeds, stems, leaves and roots of the Black Elder are all poisonous to humans. They contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside. Eating a sufficient quantity of these cyanide-inducing glycosides can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body and make you quite ill. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even coma.
 
Most people recover quickly, although hospitalization may be required. The fruit of the elderberry is a tiny berry, about 1/8 to ¼ inch in diameter, and about 50% of the berry is seed.
 

Cooking the berries destroys the glycosides present in the seeds, making the berries with their seeds safe to eat. As such, the fruit of the Black Elderberry should always be cooked before consumption. Interestingly, research indicates that exposing elderberry to heat actually concentrates the polyphenols and anthocyanin’s.

Bunad Nordis Folk Dress.jpgThe Elder or Ellan-tree (Sambucus), in Scandinavian mythology, was consecrated to Hulda, the goddess of love, and to Thor, the god of Thunder, and is connected with many ancient Northern superstitions. 

The Danes believe that in the Elder there dwells a being known as the Hylde-moer (Elder-mother) or Hylde-qvinde (Elder-woman), by whom all injuries done to the Elder are avenged. In a small court in the Nybonder, a district of Copenhagen, there stands a weird tree, which at dusk is reputed to move up and down the passage, and sometimes to peep through the windows at the children. It is not deemed advisable to have furniture made of Elder-wood. Tradition says that a child having been laid in a cradle made of Elder-wood, the Hylde-moer came and pulled it by the legs, nor would she let it have any rest until it was taken out of the cradle.

A peasant once heard his children crying in the night, and on inquiring the cause, was told that some one had been there and sucked them; and their breasts were found to be swollen. This annoyance was believed to have arisen, from the fact that the room was boarded with Elder. The Elder branches may not be cut until permission has been asked in the words, “Hylde-moer, Hylde-moer, allow me to cut thy branches.”

Then, if no objection be made by the spirit of the tree, the hewer proceeds, taking care first to spit three times, as a precaution against molestation. In Denmark, it is believed that he who stands under an Elder-bush at twelve o’clock on Midsummer Eve, will see Toly, the king of the Elves, go by with all his train.

Perhaps on account of the supernatural halo surrounding it, the Elder was regarded as a cure for various diseases. A Danish formula prescribes the taking of an Elder-twig by a person afflicted with toothache, who must first put it in his mouth, and then stick it in the wall, saying, “Depart thou evil spirit.” Ague may be cured by taking a twig of Elder, and sticking it in the ground, without speaking a word; the disease will then pass into the twig, and attach itself to the first person who approaches the spot.

In Russia, there is a belief that Elder-trees drive away bad and malignant spirits, out of compassion to humanity, and that they promote long life. In some Slavic countries it is thought that the tree had the power to ward off evil. In Bohemia, three spoonfuls of the water which has been used to bathe an invalid are poured under an Elder, with “Elder, God sends me to thee, that thou may’st take my fever upon thee.” This must be repeated on three successive days, and if the patient has not meanwhile passed over water, he will recover.——The Serbs introduce a stick of Elder, to ensure good luck, during their wedding festivities.

In Lower Saxony, it was customary to ask permission of the Elder-tree before cutting it, in the words, “Lady Elder, give me some of thy wood; then will I also give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.” This was repeated three times, with folded hands and bended knees. Pusch Kait, the ancient Prussian god of the earth, was supposed to live under the Elder-tree.

elderberry-syrupIn the Tyrol, an Elder-bush, trimmed into the form of a cross, is often planted on the new-made grave; and if it blooms, it is a sign that the soul of the dead person is in Paradise. The Tyroleans have such a regard for the tree, that, in passing it, they always raise their hat. 

In Savoy, branches of Elder are carried about on May-day. In Sicily, it is thought a bough of Elder will kill serpents, and drive away robbers better than any other stick. In Labruguière, France, if an animal is ill, or has a wound infested by vermin, they lead it to the foot of an Elder-tree, and twirling a bough in their hands, they bow to the tree, and address it as follows

—“Good-day, Mons. Yèble; if you do not drive away the vermin, I shall be compelled to cut both your limbs and your trunk.”

This ceremony performed, a certain cure is confidently looked for. In the country districts round Valenciennes, if an Elder-bough is hung outside the door, it is indicative of a coquette inhabiting the house.

The Elder-tree has been credited with possessing a peculiar fascination for witches and elves, who love to lurk beneath the shadow of its branches, and who are wont to bury their offspring at its foot. On the other hand, the tree has been said to exercise a protective influence against the attacks of witches and wizards, and similar evil-disposed persons; and it has been suggested that this is the reason why the tree is so often found in the neighborhood of cottages. It was thought that the tree was obnoxious to witches because their enemies use the green juice of its inner bark for anointing the eyes.

Elderberry dyes.jpg
In Scotland, according to a writer in the ‘Dublin Magazine,’ it is called the Bour-tree, and the following rhyme is indicative of the belief entertained in that country:—
 
“Bour-tree, Bour-tree, crooked rung,
Never straight and never strong,
Ever bush and never tree,
Since our Lord was nailed on thee.”
 
In Chambers’s ‘Book of Days’ is an instance of the belief that a person is perfectly safe under the shelter of an Elder-tree during a thunderstorm, as the lightning never strikes the tree of which the Cross was made. Experience has taught that this is a fallacy, although many curious exceptionally useful, as may be seen at large in Blockwitzius’s anatomies thereof.”
 

In Chambers’s ‘Book of Days’ is an instance of the belief that a person is perfectly safe under the shelter of an Elder-tree during a thunderstorm, as the lightning never strikes the treBlack Elderberry.pngBlockwitzius’s Anatomie  

“If the medicinal properties of the leaves, bark, berries, etc, were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for, which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or wound.” And he goes on to describe a variety of medicinal uses for the bark, buds, berries, leaves, and flowers; summing up the virtues of the Elder with the remark that every part of the tree is useful, as may be seen at large in thereof.”

 

With a linen or leather roller wrap about the body, till the thread break of itself. The thread being broken, and the roller removed, the amulet is not at all to be touched with bare hands, but it ought to be taken hold on by some instrument, and buried in a place that nobody may touch it.”

 
One mode of charming warts away is to take an Elder-shoot, and rub it on the wart, then cut as many notches on the twig as you have warts, bury it in a place where it will soon decay, and as it rots away the warts will disappear.  Another plan is to obtain a green Elder-stick, and rub the warts well with it, after which bury the stick to rot away in muck.
 
ElderberryGummies1.jpg
Elderberry gummies 
European Black Elderberry
Black Beauty Elderberry
Red Elderberry
Blue Elderberry
American Elderberry
 
RED ELDERBERRY (Sambucus racemona var. racemona) earns its name from the bright red berries it produces. This variety of elderberry is restricted to cool, moist sites along the coastal mountain range extending from California north to Washington, and from Newfoundland to Alaska. It can also be found in the Appalachian highlands of Georgia and Tennessee.
 
Red Elderberry does not do well in warm climates. Growing 9 to 12 feet tall, some references say that the fruit from red elderberries are edible; other references say that they are not. According to the Journal of Archaeological Science, excavations of a late Holocene village uncovered tens of thousands of red elderberry seeds, leading researchers to believe that red elderberry was a diet staple of the native peoples living there. Most people believe that the seeds of the red elderberry must be removed before the berry is safe to eat, and that the berries should be cooked as well. The rest of the plant is considered toxic and should not be eaten.
 
BLUE ELDERBERRY (Sambucus mexicana or Sambucus nigra var. caerulea), is commonly called Mexican Elderberry. Blue Elderberry will grow in USDA Zones 6-10 and is native to California and Oregon. It prefers canyon habitat in sunny, well-drained locations at elevations of up to 9000 feet. Native peoples would head to the hills in July and August when the fruit of the blue elderberry was ripening. The berries were harvested, carefully dried and preserved in considerable amounts. A favorite use of the dried blue elderberries was to cook them down into a rich sauce called “Sauco”.
 
Only fully ripe berries should be consumed, and again, cooking the berries destroys the glycosides present in the seeds which can cause nausea and other gastro-intestinal upset. While the other parts of this plant have been used for everything from making baskets to flutes, all are toxic and should not be eaten.
 
ORNAMENTAL ELDERBERRY There are many cultivars of elderberry grown for the beauty they lend to the landscape. The lacy cut-leaved form named “Laciniata” and “Dart’s Greenlace” look similar to the finely cut Lace Leafed Japanese Maple. The purple leafed varieties named “Purpurea”, “Guincho Purple” and “Black Beauty” bare beautiful pink flowers and are quite striking. All in all there are over 40 elderberry cultivars grown specifically for their ornamental qualities. These beauties produce berries that are edible when cooked, and again, the rest of the plant is toxic and should not be eaten.
 
ARE ELDERBERRY BUSHES POISONOUS I am very sensitive to the leaves, sticks and wood of Elderberry and it gives me rashes from the cyanide but the herbal medicine (juice) doesn’t bother me at all. I never eat them though and suggest not to and you can get your vitamins from other sources. Elderberry is a useful plant in any home garden and doing your research to determine which variety will grow best in your neck of the woods is worth the effort. Elderberry is a great choice for low-lying areas, in the back of a garden, or for use as a hedge. Prepare the soil well before planting as elderberry enjoys well composted material and good drainage.
 
Sources: Burne, Charlotte Sophia (2003) Handbook of Folklore; sewnnatural.com/blog/tag/dyeing-with-elderberry https://normsfarms.com; 
“Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous” is courtesy of Norm’s Farms for Elderberry Lovers everywhere; Paul Kendall https://treesforlife.org.uk; http://www.gutenberg.org, 
 

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