Synonyms: Black Elder, Common Elder, Pipe Tree, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Boor Tree, Bountry, Ellanwood, Ellhorn, European Elder, German Elder
Scientific Name: Sambucus nigra L.
Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family)
Central and southern Europe, Balkans, Asia, North Africa
Essential oils, diaphoretic glycosides, flavonoids
Elder is most conspicuous from May to July, when it spreads out its white, parasol-shaped cymes, and in the autumn when our eyes are drawn to its juicy berries with their purplish-black shine. The branches are weighed down by the clusters of drooping berries which often fall to the ground and leave telltale black marks. During the rest of the year this bush or tree, which can grow to a height of between 10 and 25 feet, simply blends in with the general green. At these times its warty, unpleasant smelling bark is its most distinguishing feature. It is also easily identified by breaking off a twig: the inside is not woody but filled with a soft pith.
Elder is a well-tried remedy for the prevention and treatment of colds. The medicinal effects of the plant, particularly the berries, have been known since the stone age. An infusion (made from the flowers) is used both as a diaphoretic in the acute phase and preventively for stimulation of the body's immune system. Elderberry juice or pulp has a laxative effect and relieves coughs and colds. In traditional medicine a tea made from the flowers is used as a blood purifier for the treatment of blemished skin and body odour. The tea is also reported to have a supportive effect in the treatment of rheumatism and gout.
The name Elder probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ellaern or aeld (= fire, kindle) because the hollow stems were once used for blowing on a fire to get it going.
One of the German names Holler comes from the ancient term hold meaning kind or loyal, another, Holder, is said to come from the word holdo meaning spirit. The guote Holden are thus the good house spirits and the Unhold the evil spirit.
According to legend, the Elder tree was the home of tutelary household gods and it was therefore planted near houses or stables. It was probably respect for the gods dwelling in the tree that led to the belief that certain death awaited anyone who felled an Elder. Before picking leaves or flowers people would ask the shrub's permission to as not to anger it and make it lose its healing powers. In Sweden people say that on Midsummer Night the King of Fairyland with his entire retinue can be seen under the Elder tree, which is also said to be the gate to the underworld.
Different countries call their Elder spirits by quite different names. In Scandinavia the Elder was said to be the home of the goddess Hel, in Germanic mythology of the goddess Freya. The Frau Holle of German legend is also one of these Elder spirits. The snow that fell on the earth when she shook out her feather pillows is said to have been white elder flowers.
As Hel was revered, amongst other things, as goddess of death, the Elder also played an important role in death cults. Thus, Elder wood was used to make crosses for graves, the dead were laid out on Elder branches and Elder tea was drunk during the wake. In the Tyrol, Elder branches are still put on graves today. If the branches sprout this is considered a sign that the dead person has been welcomed into the realm of the dead.
It is hardly surprising that a tree which is home to so many good spirits is said to have healing powers. People would bury objects such as items of clothing or milk teeth in its shade to protect the owner from evil spells and disease, and spells were used to try to divert an illness from a sick person into the Elder bush. Or people would wear a piece of Elder wood close to the body to ward off illness. On the other hand it was believed to be dangerous to decorate a cradle with Elder branches because the fairies would see this as a sign that they could take the child away.
Both Elder flowers and Elder berries are the source of various culinary delights. Whether soup or fritters made of Elder flowers in the spring, or Elderberry jam and Elderberry punch in the autumn, nobody would turn up their nose at these usually home-made delicacies. A less known fact is that the hollow stems of the Elder tree can be used to make small musical pipes or flutes.
The plant from another perspective
Elder has a close affinity to the element air. With its stems like air pipes, which are hollow and filled with a soft pith, it can be said to enclose the air within itself. On account of its airy nature Elder bears a relationship to the kidney. A further connection, expressed in the colour of the flowers, is to the element sulphur which stands for increased metabolic processes with intensive heat formation. These two qualities together make Elder a medicinal plant which is used in kidney diseases and colds with sweating.