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Every time it rained, our patio flooded, so I asked my son to help me dig a catch basin in the hard clay of our back yard. With Nick doing most of the work, we dug a pit about four feet deep, broke up the sides of the hole so the water would seep into the surrounding soil, then started filling the hole with layers of sand, gravel, black soil, and broken-up clay. When the hole was about half filled, we stood a small elder sapling in the middle, loosened the ball of roots, and filled in the rest of the hole with layers of manure, peat, compost, and soil. We pressed the plant down firmly, then, knowing elders grow in wetlands, watered it well. The next time it rained, the water flowed off our patio and into the catch basin. Success!
Our well-watered elder tree has thrived. In just four years, it’s become huge, spreading its long leafy branches over the yard and patio, as well as over the deck Nick built eight feet off the ground, providing shade for the table and chairs. In the summer mornings, we drink our coffee and, in the evening, eat our vegan barbecue as sunlight filters through the branches above. We live on a mountain in western Pennsylvania, and the strong winds literally sing as they pass through the dense foliage, recalling stories of elemental spirits inhabiting these beautiful trees. In June, white blossoms appear in fanlike inflorescence, dozens of snowflake petals on each stem, maturing into hard immature green berries in July which ripen into juicy black berries in August.
In the Native American tradition, the elder is sacred. The soft whistling song I often hear in the branches has been heard by others as well. Elder’s long association with wind instruments suggests that the magical sound comes not from the wind but rather from the tree itself, as well as any instruments carved from elder branches. In both the Native American and European traditions, these instruments, always some kind of flute, can be used to guide people into quiet meditation, or they can be used to instill strength and courage, depending on the combined intentions of the tree and the musician.
Among the Miwok (a tribe indigenous to what is now Northern California) there is a creation myth known as the Birth of Wik’-Wek and the Creation of Man, in which a single elder tree, the lah’-pah, exists at the beginning of the world surrounded by a den of rattlesnakes:
Its branches, as they swayed in the wind, made a sweet musical sound. The tree sang; it sang all the time, day and night, and the song was good to hear. Wik’-wek looked and listened and wished he could have the tree. Nearby he saw two Hol-luk’-ki or Star-people, and as he looked he perceived that they were the Hul-luk mi-yum’-ko–the great and beautiful women-chiefs of the Star-people. One was the Morning Star, the other Pleiades Os-so-so’-li. They were watching and working close by the elderberry tree. Wek’-wek liked the music and asked the Star-women about it. They told him that the tree whistled songs that kept them awake all day and all night so they could work all the time and never grow sleepy. They had the rattlesnakes to keep the birds from carrying off the elderberries.
I’ve read that Sambucus plants produce cyanogenic glycosides which are poisonous. Ingesting enough elderberry juice or tea made from fresh leaves or flowers has been shown to cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. However, cooking the berries or drying the flowers neutralizes the toxins; moreover, small amounts of the uncooked berries are considered harmless. I saw birds and squirrels eating from our bush, so I rubbed a split berry on my forearm. No rash or irritation appeared in the next few days, so I rubbed a small amount of berry juice on my lower lip. Still no irritation, so after a week of this age-old method of testing for toxicity, I ate a few berries. Fresh elderberries are not sweet like blueberries, which they resemble, but slightly bitter, a bland but not unpleasant taste. In the following weeks, I added half a dozen elderberries to my daily forage of dandelion, lambs’ quarter, lemon balm, and garlic mustard.
The elder tree has over 26 different varieties found throughout the world. Here in the eastern United States, the most common native variety is the American elder (Sambucus Canadensis) which is what Nick and I planted next to my house. Because elderberries have been known for many generations to be useful in treating disorders of various kinds, they developed a reputation in prehistorical times for being magical, and taboos rose against using the sacred elder for anything except healing, spell-casting or making musical instruments (the genus name Sambucus is derived from the Greek word for flute). The medicinal use of elderberries is a very old practice going back at least to the ancient Egyptianswho crushed the berries to concoct a balm to heal burns and improve their complexions. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, called the elder tree his “medicine chest.”
However, in Europe the elder (Sambucus nigra) also acquired a reputation for causing trouble and sorrow. The apocryphal belief that the elder was both the wood of the Cross upon which Christ was crucified as well as the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself no doubt strengthened this fear. But elder’s sinister reputation is far older than Christianity and is thought to have sprung from ancient and now largely forgotten animistic beliefs.
Elder is one of the 22 trees in the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet, and was believed to have connections to the fairy realm. In the unseen world, the elder stands at the gateway to the underworld, and it is associated with the Queen of the Fairies who often takes the form of an elder. The tree is tied to the element of water and to the principles of transformation, death, and regeneration. In Druidic mythology, the elder is the cauldron of rebirth and thus can revive the dead.
In the Celtic tradition, the elder tree has close associations with witchcraft. Its wood is used for the making of magic wands, and witches ride elder sticks, not broomsticks. If you cut an elder, a witch bleeds. Witches conjure rough weather by stirring a bucket of water with an elder stick. You must never fall asleep beneath the elder tree, or fairies will transport you to their underworld kingdom where the spirits of the dead reside and from which there is no escape. But the elder also provides benefits to people. Because it resides on the border between the living and the dead, it provides protection from evil spirits and promotes fertility; thus, every house should have an elder close by. In Wales and Ireland, elder is sometimes planted in graveyards, and crosses of elder are placed on new graves: a flourishing elder ensures that the dead will rest in peace and not walk in the world of the living.
Because of its power over our lives, the elder tree must always be protected and honored and never be harmed or insulted. The ancient Celts believed that the Elder Tree Mother haunted houses where elder wood was used in construction, and she was known to harm infants she found lying in elder wood cradles. On the other hand, planting an elder near a house, revering it and using it for medicine, as we’ve done in our backyard, was believed to keep witches at bay.
Similarly, in Germanic lore the tree was inhabited by the mother-spirit Hyldemöer whose permission must be sought before the tree was even touched, let alone cut. To make use of the magical power of the tree, specific prayers and offerings had to be made, otherwise Hyldemöer would take revenge. It was widely believed that to burn elder wood summoned the devil, and the tree should never be touched after dark.
Elder has long played an important role in traditional European medicine. According to William Coles in Adam in Eden (1656): “There is hardly a Disease from the Head to the Foot but it cures. It is profitable for the Headache, for Ravings and Wakings, Hypocondriack and Melancholly, the Falling-sickness, Catarrhes, Deafnesse, Faintnesse and Feacours.”
Traditional cures included hanging a necklace of elder around the neck of a patient afflicted with Whooping Cough, treating warts by rubbing a leaf over the afflicted area, and chewing an elder twig for toothache, then sticking the twig into a wall with the message “Depart the evil spirit.” Elder continues to play an important part in modern herbal medicine. The berries and flowers are the safest parts of the tree to use (the bark can be highly purgative and the leaves toxic in the wrong dosage). Recent research in nutrition has corroborated elder’s reputation as a remedy for influenza, revealing that a constituent in elderberries surrounds the virus and prevents it from invading our cells.
In northern Europe, there is a long tradition to preparing elderberries as a winter tonic, and they are an important part of traditional medicine. The leaves are ground up and mixed with water and used as a poultice to heal wounds, as well as to heal rheumatism, sprains, and skin disorders. A tea or infusion is made from the dried flowers as a remedy for fevers, and the berries are boiled down and mixed with honey as a medicine for coughs. Nowadays, elderberry syrup is often eaten on pancakes or added to smoothies.
When my wife Eva was growing up in Germany in the 1960s, her parents (both of whom had experienced near-starvation during the war) would plan family vacations around places where elderberry bushes were known to grow wild. One location in the Siegerland, known as the Druid Stone, a spiraling basalt formation that towers twenty meters above its surroundings, was a favorite place to pick berries. The family gathered the fruit in large baskets and took them home where Mia, Eva’s mom, boiled a mixture of berries and spices over a low flame, strained out the solids, added sugar, and allowed the liquid to cool. Canned jars of the syrup were kept in the cellar, and Klaus, Eva’s father, loved eating it like jam on his bread, and Mia mixed the syrup with fizz water as a refreshing beverage for the children. Years ago, I heard an old immigrant from the Italian Piedmont declaim the benefits of elderberry tonic, taking a spoon daily for herself and the other adults and half a spoon daily for her grandchildren. If a family member fell ill, the dose would be increased to four times daily.
As with many folk beliefs, science has established that there is a rational basis to the belief in the healing qualities of the elder. In fact, the berries and flowers are packed with antioxidants and vitamins proven to strengthen the immune system. They help tame inflammation, lessen stress, and protect the heart. Many experts recommend elderberry to prevent respiratory symptoms. If you are interested in making use of this amazing herb, you can make your own elderberry syrup (see recipe below), or you can simply buy Sambucol in liquid or lozenge form, which contains about 38% elderberry concentrate, available online and in most pharmacies.
Homemade elderberry syrup can be made in less than an hour and will keep your family healthy all year long. It’s the best natural immune booster that nature provides. The recipe below uses dried elderberries, which can be found in health food stores or on Amazon. If you use fresh elderberries, as Eva and the women of her family have for generations, you should increase the measure of berries to 2 cups.
Caution: this article is intended for educational use only. If you have a health condition, consult a medical doctor or other licensed provider for advice. Also, be aware that the bark, leaves, roots, flowers and berries from the elder tree contain toxins and can be dangerous to consume; proceed carefully.
Copyright 2022 Michael Simms
Michael Simms, the founding editor of Vox Populi, has been a practicing vegan and forager since 2009. He holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His collections of poems include American Ash and Nightjar, and his novel Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy is being released in August 2022.