The ELDER is a tree whose reputation has been aspersed by Christians, no doubt because of the reverence and affection with which it was regarded in pagan times. Christian superstition has it that Judas hanged himself on an elder tree in remorse because of his betrayal of Jesus. There is another superstition which says that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made of elder wood. These supposed incidents, they said, affected the virtue of the tree, and it was even stated by one seventeenth century herbalist to be “a stinking tree and good for nothing.”
It is a small tree, little larger than a shrub, and quite unsuitable for a gallows. Its wood in youth is pithy, and makes good whistles and pea-shooters. It is fine-grained in age, and is used to make small ornamental and utilitarian items, but could never stretch to make a cross to crucify anyone! And, despite these odd tales the elder remains what it has always been – a thing of beauty, and a potent magical, medicinal, and culinary plant.
The elder is closely entwined in the mythology and folk¬lore of the Germanic peoples, and is connected with Elves, as its old name ‘ellen’ indicates. A tree-spirit, the Elder-Mother, lives in the tree, and all the herbs in the garden are under her protection. She is said to feel compassion for human beings, and to protect them from evil spirits, and grant them longevity. It was a practice up to recent times, (some of us still carry it on!) to ask the permission of the Elder-Mother before gathering flowers, leaves or fruit, or before cutting any of the wood.
The wood should never be burned. The old tale tells us that if it was put on the fire the Elder-Mother would come down the chimney and give us a fright! The pith of the young wood is said to have wonderful powers. Cut into rounds, soaked in oil, lighted and set to float on a bowl of water it will reveal all the witches in the neighbourhood.
I think that the elder must be sacred to Thor – planted near a house it is said to prevent lightning strike, and it is a great help to organic gardening and agriculture, for elder trees planted near the compost-heap greatly improve the compost.
The culinary and medicinal uses of the elder are many. Both flower and berry make excellent wine. The flowers can be beaten into muffin and pancake batter to greatly improve the texture and taste, and elderberries added to apple pie and apple jams and jellies give a remarkably pleasant result.
The flowers and the leaves of the elder are used to make lotions and creams for skin conditions, elderflower water being the basis for many cosmetic preparations. They also provide an eye lotion, and many cures for serious eye complaints have been recorded. The flowers are also a good blood tonic. The berries, made into syrup are an excellent tough remedy and have been used to cure anaemia; they are rich in Vitamin C, and essential trace elements. Elderberry wine is useful to ease the pain of rheumatism and neuralgia.