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Enchanted Elder

By Audrey Stallsmith

sambucus nigra

One's delight in an elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank as a more gladdening sight than the finest cistus or fuchsia spreading itself on the softest undulating turf. . .

George Eliot, Mill in the Floss

The elder has long been considered a magical tree, though there seems to be some confusion over whether its charms are good or evil! Piers Plowman wrote that "Judas japed (cheated) with Jewish siller,/ And sithen on an elder tree/ Hanged himselve."

We Americans, who know the plant as more of a large shrub than a tree, may find this tradition unlikely. But the Old World elder, sambucus nigra, can grow to twenty feet.

Another ancient--and accusing--chant goes, "Bour tree--Bour tree: crooked, rong/ Never straight and never strong;/ Ever bush and never tree/ Since our Lord was nailed on thee."

Elder was known as bore or pipe tree because the ancients removed the pith from its branches to make flutes. The Latin sambucus is believed to be adapted from the Greek, sambuca, a musical instrument.

Children also shaped the bores into pop-guns. "That's a perilous shot out of an elder gun," one of Shakespeare's characters comments. Finally, those lighting fires would puff through the hollow rods to stoke the flames. So the plant's common name derives from the Saxon aeld or "fire." In this country, Indians fashioned arrows, tapped maple trees, or called elk with elder pipes.

Despite the unhappy traditions associated with it, elder gained a reputation as a protector. In the 1600's William Coles reported that "the common people formerly gathered the leaves of Elder upon the last day of Aprill, which to disappoint the charms of Witches they had affixed to their Doores and Windowes." Cottagers planted elders in their dooryards for the same reason.

A coachman driving a hearse commonly carried a whip of elder, and mourners tossed the tree's green branches into the open grave to preserve the deceased's body from evil. They also planted an elder tree on the new grave, pruning it into the shape of a cross. If it bloomed, they could happily assume that their late loved one was enjoying paradise.

On Christmas Eve, the superstitious cut elder pith into discs, soaked those discs with oil, and floated them in a bowl of water--where they were set afire. By that flickering light, the fearful hoped to be able to identify all of the secret witches in the neighborhood.

Part of the belief in elder's magic must be attributed to pagan myth. According to Danish legend, the tree is inhabited by a wood nymph called the Elder Mother. In Hans Christian Anderson's story, supposedly told to a little boy with a cold who was drinking elderflower tea, "The Little Elder-Tree Mother" is benevolent.

But she wasn't always considered so understanding. Those so careless as to harvest elder's pale, fine-grained wood without asking her permission could expect to feel phantom hands grasping at them from the floors or furniture they constructed with it! The more cautious souls fortunate enough to receive her assent, however, found the wood to be easily cut and long-lasting. But a child whipped with an elder stick would, they believed, cease to grow.

It's no wonder that even wanderers gathering firewood steered clear of elder. They also avoided sleeping under the tree, since its "narcotic" odor was thought to inspire dread and dreams of death. In Cymbeline, Shakespeare compared grief itself to the "stinking elder." And, on Midsummer's Eve, there was always the danger of encountering the King of the Elves under its branches!

According to tradition, the dwarf elder, also called "the plant of the Blood of Man" supposedly sprang up on battlefields from the gore of dead Danish warriors. For this reason, it was known as danewort or dane's blood. There may actually be some truth to this belief, since elder prefers fertile soil--and blood is rich in nitrogen.

In former times, all parts of the elder were used in medicine. The famous Dutch physician, Boerhaave, had so much respect for the tree that he would always tip his hat to it. But children have died from eating the fresh root.

The root, bark, and leaves of elder contain an alkaloid and a small amount of cyanide which makes them violently purgative. So they should not be taken internally. In the past, some people did cook and eat the spring shoots like asparagus. But I suspect they first boiled off the poison, as was often done with poke.

It is safer to sample only the dried flowers and the cooked berries. The raw fruits can make you sick too, if you eat too many. Often an ingredient in pies, jellies, or chutneys, elderberries are good for bronchial troubles like asthma because they expel phlegm.

For the same reason, hot elderberry cordials, called "robs," were quite popular treatments for colds and flu. Besides getting rid of mucous, they also broke fevers by encouraging perspiration. Those knowing the tradition about Judas's hanging found it quite significant that a purplish fungus which grows on elder proved a most effective cure for throat problems! This fungus, hirneola auricula Judae was more commonly called Judas's Ear.

Elderberries have also been used to treat both diarrhea and constipation. In the past, many rheumatism sufferers discovered cheap port to be a good cure, since it was commonly adulterated with elderberry juice.

John Heinerman reports that the Choctaw Indians mixed elderberry juice with honey and smoothed the resulting "salve" over burns and skin eruptions. For migraines, they employed the fresh fruits, mixed with hot salt, applied as a compress to the forehead.

Elder flowers treated many of the same problems as the berries did. Those blooms take on a surprisingly pleasant odor when dried. The pale-skinned belle of the past always kept a jar of elderflower water on her dressing table. This excellent concoction would bleach her complexion, soothe sunburn or headache, and quiet skin eruptions such as pimples or poxes. Like the berries, elderflower tea also treated colds, flu, sore throat, fevers, and burns. The flowers were sometimes baked into flannel cakes and muffins as well.

Elderberry juice boiled with alum made a violet color for artists, just as the roots would make black and the leaves green. That juice would also darken the hair.

Livestock seem to have the same equivocal view of the elder as people once did. Sheep and cows will eat the plant, but horses and goats avoid it. Wild birds love the berries, but those fruits are toxic to most domestic fowl. The leaves will repel insects as well as mice. A tea made from the shoots also fends off blight from fruit trees.

I'm fond of elderberry jelly and even fonder of the fact that the plant grows quite contentedly without any assistance from me. In other words, it gives without expecting anything in return. That can only make it blessed!

Sambucus nigra image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.