Elder Sambucus nigra
Elder Sambucus nigra (Latin) Ruis ( Ogham/Gaelic name) Ellaern (Saxon)
Folk names- Elle, Hyldemoer, Lady Ellhorn, Old Lady, Old Sal, Pipe tree and Bole tree.
Qualities of Elder
Ruis is Elder, redness of shame.
Intensest of blushes, it is the reddening of a man’s face through the juice of the herb being rubbed on it.
Arduous anger, punishment.
Redness of faces.
Book of Ballymote 1391
The Elder tree seems to be loved and hated in equal measure. Elder can be described as an unattractive weed- like shrub that spreads unwanted with smelly flowers that attracts flies.
In other traditions Elder is feared as in Scandinavia and Denmark where the tree is known as Elle or Hyldemoer and is said to take revenge on all who harm trees.
In Britain it is said witches take the form of the tree and cause much harm! Further sinister connotations include stunted growth for a child beaten with an Elder rod and even death to the family who bring it inside. However as with the blackthorn the tree also offers protection when hung on doors, windows and stables.
A true witch or herbalist would know Elder as the mother of all herbs curing all ills with its delicate white flowers and black berries. The flowers can be used to relief hay fever, bronchitis, fevers, rheumatism and gout.
They can be used as an inhalant for head colds and a gargle for hoarseness. A cleanser for conjunctivitis and a compress for chilblains. They can also act as a gentle laxative, a mild astringent and a gentle stimulant. If taken before sleep they can induce a heavy cleansing sweat.
They can also be used as a fixative in cosmetics, creams and lotions with an odour that is said to improve with age. Elder flower water is said to be nature’s gift to one’s complexion whitening the skin and clearing freckles, soothing sun burn and tired puffy eyes.
The flowers can be fried up as fritters and the buds can be added to a salad. An old Sussex saying suggests to take Elder for three days and if you are still not feeling any better then go to the doctor.
The flowers are followed by its black berries which are rich in vitamin C and a perfect remedy to keep off the winter chills and bugs when made into delicious syrup.
The berries can also be used for the making of wine and added to soups, puddings, jellies and chutneys and dried to be used as you would currants. Although the Elder attracts flies, when its leaves are bruised or infused they can be used to repel flies and other biting insects. The same infusion can be used as an insecticide and fungicide on plants. The roots and the bark of Elder should be used with caution as they can act as a purgative, people sometimes also react to the uncooked berries.
Stories of Elder are plentiful seeming to be depict the tree as a protector of the land, animals and the human mind. The human mind in the old traditions is what transports us to the Otherworlds or faerie realms and when we do not return we have quite literally lost our minds. This perhaps is why people can see mental illness as a channel for wisdom and auguries but of course this is not recommended and is a state we should all look to relief not encourage. The idea of Elder transporting us to faerie land enabling us to see the faerie Queen and her entourage is also borne out may in the fact that its pith contains a mild sleep inducing drug.
In the story of Finn and the phantoms Elder is the fuel the phantoms burn as Finn is forced to face his past wrong doings.
One of the most famous stories of Elder is of how the Rollright stones came into being. It is said a Witch created the stones by turning a Dane King and his army to stone before transforming herself into an Elder tree. It is said the stones will re-awaken and the Dane army are cursed to help England when its most in need.
On Midsummer eve it is a custom to dance amongst the stones wearing a garland of Elderflowers.
Elder in Saxon is known as Ellaern which means hollow tree referring to its very soft pith which can be removed to make whistles, pea shooters, blow pipes and even flutes. Its Latin name ‘Sambucus’ also may indicate a musical instrument known as the sackbut which is an ancient stringed instrument or the Italian musical pipes known as sampognas. Elder may also be used to make bellows known as pluffs.
The pith itself could be used for floats or dipped in oil and lit to decorate a dish filled with water. Despite its soft pith its wood is actually close grained and hard and was once used for fishing rods, shoemakers pegs, mathematical instruments, combs and toys.
For a more detailed exploration you may wish to explore our Tree Folklore Course and support valuable Conservation work.
Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.