Wednesday, 3 September 2008


A few of you are planting Elders and I am soooo glad. They are a veritable medicine chest, although not all parts are used these days. Here are some bits and pieces about Elders for your amusement and general information.

Elder is a smallish tree up to 10m tall, which generally has several hollow stems arising from the base of the plant. The leaves have 5-9 leaflets, which are ovate-lanceolate and lightly toothed. The small creamy-white flowers have 5 petals and are held in an umbel about 20cm across. Sambucus is fast growing (eg, my four year old plant is over 3 metres tall) with thin, spindly growth in the first few years. The trunks and branches thicken only in later years as the tree matures.

In Australia, Elder has the status of introduced weed and it is prevalent in cooler regions of southern Australia where it has been spread into bushland by the aid of birds. Elder enjoys high rainfall and rich soils, often colonising low ground. Low lying ground naturally attracts moisture, frosts and cold air, which tie in with the Elder's Underworld connections.

Elder has been used since prehistoric times. It was well known to ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates, Plinius, Dioscorides and Galen and was purported to be the tree upon which Judas hung himself and that Jesus was crucified. Pan pipes made from Elder were considered to produce the most haunting music and so the Elder was linked to Pan in Greek mythology. [Pan, in his pursuit of Syrinx, is left holding nothing but a reed when the nymphs turn Syrinx into a reed in order to protect her. Pan then takes seven reeds and turns them into the first pan pipes.]

In northern Europe, the Elder was linked to the Elder Mother (aka Hylde-Moer or Lady Ellhorn), who needed to be offered something in return for a part of the plant. In western Europe, the Elder was considered to be the door to the underworld and the fairy realm. Cradles were never made of Elder wood for fear that the Elder Mother would steal the baby away into the Underworld. Hans Christian Anderson used the Elder in stories such as The Daughter of the Marsh King and The Little Elder Mother.

Elder commands great respect. You should always ask respectfully for a part of her, be it the flowers, berries, leaves or cuttings. It is also prudent to offer something in return. So for example, you may acknowledge her importance, ask for her permission to pick her flowers and state that you will one day pass on and your body will be returned to the soil to nourish her kind and others in the plant kingdom. Above all, thank her for anything you take from her. You will generally find the Elder to be quite agreeable to your requests if stated in this way.

Many authors follow Mrs Grieve in stating that the word Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ├Žld, meaning fire. But latterly, Wood suggests that the word Elder comes instead from hulda, as in the Icelandic huldafolk, meaning the “hidden people” or fairies. The Elder is therefore associated with magic, fairies and Pan, Lord of the Underworld. In fact, my Elder is planted at the bottom of my garden, which is where the fairies usually reside. . .

Charlemagne (Charles the Great), who ruled the French empire from 768 to 814CE, decreed that every household in his empire have an Elder planted in the garden, to be readily available as a “medicine cabinet”. Parts of the Elder were used wherever bodily channels needed to be opened, eg, as a purgative, diaphoretic and diuretic, as well as an emetic, emmenagogue and expectorant.

Elder is traditionally used as a diaphoretic in fevers, colds and influenza; for sinusitis, nasal catarrh with deafness, pleurisy, bronchitis, sore throats, measles and scarlet fever; and topically for treatment of inflamed eyes, skin disorders, wounds, burns and liver disorders.

Constitutionally, Elder is a great infant remedy, especially where there is pale blue swelling across the nose and red, dry irritated skins on the cheeks and cheeky parts of the body. It is also suited to elderly people with blue swollen ankles and anywhere there is stagnation of fluids and blood with pale blue swelling and red, dry irritated skin. Elder is also well suited to sanguine children with strong personalities, who may be poorly socialised and resistant to taking directions and may be classified as "hyperactive".

In modern herbal medicine the main parts used from the Elder are the flowers and the berries. The fresh flowers are highly purgative and so they are generally dried before use. The fresh berries can also have a purgative or laxative effect, so I wouldn't recommend "pigging out" on them.

As well as making tinctures from the flowers and berries for medicinal use, you can make elderflower cordials or elderberry wine. Some good recipes for elderflower cordials are on the Selfsufficientish site. Elderflower cordial is very refreshing in summer, especially mixed with mineral water.

As always the information supplied is for your personal interest. You should consult a professional herbalist if you think you are in need of any herbal treatment.

love and light


Cheryl said...

I loved this post....for me the elder has always had magical qualities......I live in the low weald, the elder grows all around my garden......the soil is damp and fertile and the winters cold. It does well here......My two little grand children came today...we walked the garden and took some berries (a small amount)....we held a little ceremony to thank the trees......both of them love the berries, every time they come we pick them and go through the same ritual.......

I am sure as they grow they will think that there grandmother is slightly weird. Well.............

A beautiful post......

Em said...

thankyou for this post - a lovely read :)

Elderberry is on my wishlist for our garden.

Erica said...

Wow, I had no idea! Thanks for the all the great info :)

flmom said...

I have passed along an award to you. Have a wonderful day!

Wendy said...

Thank you for all your good information. I've always been enchanted with the elder flower. It is magic! I don't think it grows in Canada - at least not where I live.
Happy gardening

naturewitch said...

Hi Cheryl - then you will truly have fairies living in the bottom of your garden! How wonderful to be surrounded by such magic.

Hey Em and Erica - I hope you do get an elderberry each; they are such lovely additions to your garden.

Hi flmom - thanks for the award; I'll drop by to pick it up. :)

Hey Wendy - good news, the Sambucus canadensis does grow in Canada, but I'm not sure about your region. It is dormant over winter, so maybe it will work for you. Hope so.

love and light