Tree Stories 11 – Elder

Elder is now published on its own page, under Tree Stories or click here.

Elder tree

Elder tree

Technically Elder, Sambucus nigra, should probably be a shrub rather than a tree. It does have a bole where the roots and branches meet but it scarcely has a trunk, its branches are hollow, and it is currently classified as being in the Adoxacae family along with Moschatel. (Previously it was with honeysuckle and snowberry in the dipsacale or teasel family.) However Elder towers over most other shrubs and grows to the size of a small tree, so in folklore it is a tree.

The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, fire, as its hollow sticks were used for encouraging a good blaze. They also called it ellaern, meaning hollow tree. Other names include Ellhorn and Bour (pipe) tree.

Elders like to grow in full sun and will romp away in a hedge overshadowing the hawthorn, but are also frequently found in damp shady areas of woodland forming part of the understory. It has a very strong life force and great powers of regeneration, being quite hard to remove should you wish to. However not much will grow under it so it is difficult to place in a garden.

A wide range of wildlife lives off elderflowers and berries, hence it will often grow near rabbit or badger setts after they have helped the seed along its way. Caterpillars also like the foliage. Elderberries can be mildly toxic to humans unless cooked, particularly if still unripe. Medicinally, however Elder is a very valuable tree. The berries and also the bark were used as a purgative, for rheumatism, or for colds and flu or sore throats and for asthma; breathing through a hollowed out stick was also a remedy for asthma. The leaves are good for bruises, sprains and strains or chilblains, or for insect repellant as a bunch to keep flies out of the kitchen or off horses, or soaked and the liquid used on the human body against midges. The flowers are good as a tonic or for epilepsy or sinusitis.

Other uses from the tree include: berry juice as a blue or purple dye, or for making wine, pies, jams, vinegar, chutney; flowers for sparkling wine or cordial, or in salads or cakes; bark for black dye, leaves for green; sticks for blowpipes, whistles, pegs, skewers, or making small whittlings; and the pith for fishing floats or to hold samples on microscope slides. The wood polishes up well when the bark is removed, and the bole is very dense.

In folklore elder was inhabited by the Elder Tree Mother, Hylde-moer, who needed to be appeased before any part of the tree was cut. She would haunt any timber from the tree, not necessarily in a good way, so making furniture from it was generally avoided. Witches were said to be able to turn into elder trees at will. However as protection elder was apparently great for driving away evil spirits or witchcraft, so branches were hung over doorways and buried in graves. Flutes made from elder were used to summon spirits, while twigs woven into a headdress are said to enable the wearer to see spirits. Alternatively they will undo evil magic; a necklace made from elder beads can also be used for protection. To have a self sown elder tree near your house was regarded as particularly auspicious, and they were often planted by bake ovens to keep the devil away. Fairies are said to particularly like the music from elder pipes or flutes, but it is generally advised to avoid sleeping under an elder tree unless you wish to be taken by them. Food left under elder trees overnight will be considered to belong to the fae.

To me the elder is a tree I have always been a little ambivalent towards, and the many contradictions in its character and uses are possibly the reason why. However, I then found a transcript of a conversation between an elder tree interpreted by Verena Stael von Holstein, and Wolfgang Weirauch, which showed me how the strength and spiritual gifts of this species come from precisely this contradictory nature. The many connections the Elder has with spirits and otherworld beings may not be entirely coincidental. As a witches tree, it is without parallel.

Elder Tree: “For human beings there are various paths to seek initiation into the world of spirit: firstly through thinking, clarity of thought; then the path which corresponds more to me is a path rooted in one’s own culture. … On the one hand such a person needs to be formed in a relatively gnarled way, but on the other hand he needs an unimpeded lightness – as you find in my timber. From the outside my wood looks completely gnarled, but inside I am almost cotton-like. As trees we need a harder exterior form, but within I’m the opposite of heaviness: a matter that is almost dissolving. This shows I’m a kind of connecting radiance between this world and the world of spirit. … This permeation with spirit informs my whole being and substance.
On the one hand my substance is very stable, on the other it is in dissolution. For instance, see the feathery quality of my pinnate leaves, through to the tips of each leaf, which are pointed and dentate, or toothed. Due to my transitional and gateway function, my leaves are flame shaped. In the flame you meet the world of spirit in tangible form.

A sulphurous quality comes through [the smell of my leaves.] The world of spirit does not necessarily smell very good for earthly senses. You would need to completely refashion your sense systems to really endure spirituality. If you want to develop your clairsentient faculties of smell, you can school your senses with the scent of crumbled elder leaf. On the other hand, my blossoms give of a fragrance that you probably find wonderful, which has an intoxicating effect and which you use to make sparkling wine. The scent serves at the same time as a warning not to get intoxicated.

As for the berries being poisonous when green and only edible when fully ripe:

Elder tree: “When you are still green you should not pass across to the other side, for then spirituality can endanger you. You first have to attain a certain soul maturity to cope with the full reality. The guardian of the threshold and I have a very close relationship. Wherever elder grows you can encounter your guardian.

Elder has a cleansing effect on the body. You can’t cross over the threshold in an impure state.

I belong to the cultural inheritance of northern Europe, and thus to the forces that come from the North and Teutonic cultures. I belong to people of the central European cultural epoch and their roots. … I am not so important to Asiatic peoples.”
Q: “There are said to have been times when people took off their hats as a mark of respect when passing an elder tree. Why did they do this?”
Tree: “Because they knew unconsciously that the place surrounding an elder tree is sacred. That’s why they removed their hats in the same way as going into church. At the same time people knew unconsciously that higher beings were connected with the elder tree, such as the guardian of the threshold, or Mother Holle, who is a fairytale image of the figure of the guardian.”

From: Nature Spirits of the Trees.

The strange thing to me is that I never liked the taste of elderberry, just the flowers, so I have most of a box of ‘medicinal’ tea on my shelf that I save for when I have a bad cough or cold. However, since writing this story and becoming closer to the tree, I have found I now rather enjoy it.

Ripening elder berries

Ripening elder berries

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Brambles

Blackberry flowers and fruits

Blackberry flowers and fruits


For the past three weeks M and I have enjoyed picking blackberries on our walks. Apart from just eating them, we have made several pots of bramble jelly, some blackberry ice cream, had blackberry and apple crumble, stewed blackberries for breakfast, and even frozen some. Blackberry cheesecake is a personal favourite that might come soon… It is one of those flavours that you can never quite remember properly, but a good juicy berry is always better than you expect. Or a bad one more pippy and worse.

Brambles love the British climate, growing anywhere they are allowed and rooting themselves wherever they touch the ground. Around here it is in the hedgerows that I find them, often picking a few here and there as I walk. Most branches will have a few ripe ones, but the plants have evolved to fruit over a long period to encourage maximum spread of the seeds so it is rare to find many ripe ones together. M has taught me to notice them even when I haven’t brought a pot to put some in; the odd one or two keep her going on a walk and she can now spot a bramble bush before I can. Even 30 yards away, the other side of a road. Picking half a pound along a mile of hedge is quite easy; if I’m after more than that it takes effort, knowing where to go, and frequently full combat gear! They are the most predatory plant I know, using their thorns to hook onto whatever they find – hawthorn, fences, their own branches. (Take a look at Bramble Scramble from the BBC’s Private Life of Plants if you don’t believe me!) Luckily there are thornless types now available for those who wish to cultivate them, but they are generally not half as satisfying as picking wild berries.

Bramble hedgerow

Bramble hedgerow


In some areas of Europe there is a taboo against eating blackberries – either because they belong to the fae, or because they represent death. The former is an interesting one, given blackberry wine is apparently okay! This is not a question I have had the opportunity to ask directly, but I believe the point here is about balance, respect, understanding, and above all sharing, especially if you make wine… And remembering that the bramble bushes feed and shelter many animals and birds as well. Cutting them all back, especially when they are about to fruit, would not be appreciated. Others suggest that eating blackberries or drinking blackberry wine at the Equinox is a good way to contact the fae. This is the time when the energies start to withdraw, spiralling down into the earth, and in some legends the Lord of the Harvest enters the Underworld, through the hollow hills, into the care of the fae. Black will take you down into the dark, finding the way through the tunnels of the Earth, while the sweetness will bring pleasure and enjoyment and lightness of heart, helping us to remember life is to be lived.

As for death, well being a pagan is all about the cycles of nature and death being a necessary part of life. The old must be cleared away to make space for what is to come, and Spirit is eternal. Death is not to be feared, but to be embraced, worked with, even thanked at times, for it is the only way we may pass out of this life and into the next part of our spiritual journey when it is time to leave.

There are also many superstitions against eating blackberries after a certain date, usually Michaelmas day (11th October) but sometimes Autumn equinox, or October 1st. The reasons given vary with the date, but in my experience it is a rare year that the late blackberries have been properly pollinated and ripen to full sweetness; the August berries always taste the best.

Planted on graves, brambles were supposed to stop the dead from wandering. Children or cows can be passed through a bramble arch rooted at both ends to bring health, for the blackberry has the gift of abundance as well as protection. Whooping cough was a favourite to be cured in this way, leaving an offering afterwards of bread and butter for the fairies of course.