Elder

This is the familiar shrub with creamy-white flowers in summer, and black berries later on, widespread and very common, and actually planted, Gerard says: "it is planted about cony-boroughs for the shadow of the Conies", though he admits it "groweth every where". So common is it, that there is a tendency to forget how important it was once in various mythologies. It was the tree under which the old Prussian earth-god lived (Farrer), presumably the same as the Latvian Priskaitis, who also lived under an elder, and who ruled over little subterranean beings called Barstukai, or Kantai. If offerings were made to Priskaitis, the little men brought plenty of corn and did the household work (Gimbutas). This idea that a spirit of some kind inhabits the tree has survived in folklore to the present day. Danish peasants believed until very recently that Hyldemoer, elder-mother, lived in the tree, and would avenge all injuries done to it. So her permission had to be asked before an elder was cut (Kvideland & Sehmsdorf). Some accepted form of words was usually employed, as in the ancient German prayer "Frau Ellhorn, give me some of your wood, then I will give you some of mine when it grows in the forest" (Bonser). That kind of prayer, degenerated into a rhyme, has been recorded in Scotland, too. Even if the tradition is quite different, the rhyme "exonerated the gardener from ill intent" (Simpson). There are further similar records from Lincolnshire, where they used to believe that the Old Lady, or the Old Girl, would be offended by cutting elder wood without asking her leave (Burne. 1914). Sometimes it is said in this country that a death in the family would follow the cutting down of an elder (Notes and Queries; 1941). You must not make a cradle out of elder wood, in case Frau Helder takes her revenge on the baby (Thompson), and there is a prejudice in Oxfordshire against using the wood for mending anything. In Wales, they say elder bleeds if cut, a belief that was current in Somerset, too. Ruth Tongue cites cases of farmers complaining of hedge-trimmers who refuse to tie up elder into faggots, because of this belief. That is the reason, too, why a lot of hedges in Oxfordshire had their elders left when the rest was being trimmed.

The tree has been associated with witchcraft in this country from early times, for in the 10th century, the canons of King Edgar spoke of "vain practices that are carried on with elders" (A J Evans). It is often said that witches live in an elder, for the change from tree spirit to witch is easily made. In fact, there is a folk tale from north Somerset, called the Elder Tree Witch, where the witch is the elder, and moves around the farm in the form of the tree (Tongue). And there is a similar manifestation in the legend of the Rollright Stones. The biggest of the stones is called the King Stone, once a man who would have been king of England if he could have seen Long Compton. A witch said:

Seven long strides shalt thou take and If Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.

On his seventh stride a mound rose up before him, hiding Long Compton from sight. The witch then said:

As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be, Rise up, stick, and still, stone, For King of England thou shalt be none. Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an eldern tree.

The story is at least as old as Gibson's edition of Camden, Britannia, 1695. Though where exactly the witch-elder now stands seems to be a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, the proof that the "elder is a witch is that it bleeds when it is cut" led to the custom, on Midsummer Eve, for people from the area to meet at the stones, and to cut the elder, or at least the tree they thought to be the real one. As it bled, the King Stone was supposed to move its head (Grinsell, 1977).

Christian tradition has it that it is the tree of which the Cross was made (Dyer). Chambers has:

Bour-tree, bour-tree, crookit rung, Never straight, and never strong, Ever bush, and never tree, Since our Lord was nailed t'ye.

"We don't cut elder in a copse, nor do we burn it. They say the Cross was made of it" (Goddard. 1942-4). That is the reason for the superstition that the elder is proof against lightning - it never strikes the tree from which the Cross was made (Gurdon). Elder wreaths used to be hung up in parts of Germany after sunset, as charms against lightning (Dyer), or according to another tradition, as a protection against the ravages of caterpillars (Farrer). Perhaps this last accounts for the Sicilan belief that elder sticks kill snakes (and drive away robbers) (Hemphill). Note, too, that witches could be shot only with elder pith (or bullets made of inherited silver).

Elders are plants of St John in German belief (Thonger), and over a much wider area are invested with similar witch-finding properties as the St John's Wort. In the Isle of Man particularly, elder was fixed to doors and windows to protect the house (Moore). According to Train, it was because it was the tree from which Judas hanged himself that such reliance was placed on its powers. Anyway, in his day (1845), practically every cottage on the island had an elder growing by the side of it. It may be a protection, but at the same time they used to say that fairies (the kind equated with the ancestors) actually lived in elder trees (Wentz). They lived there, not like birds in a tree, but somehow in the hollow stems, "as though they were drawn up through its roots from the earth itself" (Gill. 1929), and they would leave if the tree were cut down, and then come back to weep and lament each night (Killip). A German belief, taken to America, was that an elder stick burned on Christmas Eve would somehow or other reveal all the witches in the neighbourhood; another American belief was that if a small piece of elder pith was cut, dipped in oil, lit, and then floated on water, it would point to any witch present. Similarly, to find out if witchcraft was the cause of losses to livestock, the farmer was advised to take six knots of elder wood and to put them "in orderly arrangement" under a new ash bowl or platter. If they were found sometime later "all squandered about", then that was the sign that the cattle were indeed dying from witchcraft (Brockie). In Northumberland, a piece was kept in the chest to protect household linen from evil influences (Denham). An elder hedge secured many a home in Scotland from "undesirable attention" (McPherson); it also protected it from lightning (Tebbutt).

One tradition says that anyone, provided they had been baptised, would be able to see witches in any part of the world if their eyes were anointed with the green juice of the inner bark (Dyer). The berries and pith were sometimes given in the food of anyone thought to be bewitched (Leather). It appears as an animal protector, too, on the Continent, to be fixed in stalls and byres in the same way as is rowan in this country (Sebillot). Also on the Continent, elder trees were cut on Midsummer Eve to "make them bleed", i.e., to let the sap escape. As the elder was particularly the witches' own, this bleeding ceremony helped deprive them of their powers (Urlin); but that is a practice not just confined to the Continent - it took place at the Rollright Stones too, as already mentioned. Hearse drivers were said to favour elder-wood whips in their dangerous association with the dead (Femie), and for the same reason, the Hildesheim gravediggers used it when measuring the corpse (Bonser). Once, it was buried with a corpse, especially that of a child, to protect it from the attention of witches (Fernie), or to "keep off the fairies" in the hazardous time before the Day of Judgment (Gill. 1929) (why should fairies be afraid of elder leaves when they lived in the tree anyway?). If a twig of elder were planted on a grave, and it grew, it was taken as a sign that the soul of the deceased was happy, "which is the probable reason why the very old Jewish cemetery in Prague was planted full of elders" (Leland).

Elder may have had these protective and anti-witch virtues, but it was still an unlucky tree, with an evil character. The very fact that witches were fond of lurking under it made it dangerous to tamper with after dark (Dyer). And do not sleep under one - the leaves were said to give out a toxic scent which, if inhaled, may send the sleeper into a coma and death (M Baker. 1977). Mending cradles with elder-wood was just as dangerous, as mentioned above, for a Cheshire belief was that it would give witches power to rock from far off so violently that the babies would be injured (Hole. 1937). Again, a child laid in an elder-wood cradle will pine away, or be pinched black and blue by the fairies (Graves); or the fairies may steal it (Grigson); or the Elder-Mother would strangle it (Farrer). In Ireland, elder wood was never used in boat building (O Suilleabhain); nor, so it was said in South Wales, should a building of any kind be put up on the spot where an elder had stood (Trevelyan). It is credited with having a harmful influence on any plants growing near it (Rohde. 1936). The flowers were never allowed in the rooms of Fenland houses, because they were supposed to attracted snakes (Porter), and there is a record in the same area of a belief that a wound suffered by contact with the tree, say by driving a sharp stick accidentally into the hand, would inevitably prove fatal.

In the Midlands, and in Sussex, they would never bind elder wood with other faggots (Farrer, Tongue), and it was quite a common belief that beating boys with an elder stick would stunt their growth, though the child might grow up very wise (O Cleirigh). Burning elder, particularly green elder (Forby), was almost universally forbidden in England, for it is a "wicked wood", or "it brings the devil into the house" (Graves, Hean-ley), or, as they say in Lincolnshire, "the devil is in elder wood" (Rudkin). "People say that if you want to keep the devil out of your house, you must never burn elder wood" - that is a Wiltshire belief (Goddard). It would "draw the devil down the chimney" (Boase), or, as in Warwickshire, you would see the devil sitting on the chimney pot (Witcutt). In Needwood Forest, and in Hertfordshire, the expression used is that it would raise the devil (Burne, Jones-Baker). Sometimes the result would be that the person burning it would become bewitched (Vickery. 1983), though the Yorkshire wise man would burn it in his efforts to defeat witchcraft (Atkinson. 1886). Derbyshire people would never burn it because of its association, already mentioned, with the Cross (Addy). In lots of other places, it was just thought too unlucky to burn. But around Cricklade, in Wiltshire, it was reckoned safe to burn provided it was given to you (Olivier & Edwards), a piece of Wiltshire pragmatism that embodies the concept of never looking a gift horse in the mouth. But the general appreciation of elder is contained in this rhyme from Warwickshire:

Hawthorn bloom and elder flowers

Will fill the house with evil powers (M E S

Wright).

Perhaps the unlucky associations are a memory of its use in black magic. As early as the 10th century, King Edgar had enjoined that "every priest ... extinguish every heathenism; and forbid ... vain practices ... with elders" (Ewen).

Crowning someone with elder was reckoned in Yorkshire to be about the most insulting thing that could be done (Gutch), for Judas hanged himself on an elder-tree, a belief that Ben Jonson picked up in Every Man out of his Humour: "He shall be your Judas, and you shall be his elder-tree to hang on". A fungus that grows on elder is known as Jew's Ear, that is, Judas's Ear (it was looked on as a great medicine for quinsy, sore throat, and the like).

Beekeepers in Yorkshire used to sprinkle the hive with an elder branch, dipped in sugar and water when the bees were ready to swarm (Addy). In Cornwall, too, they say that the inside of hives should be scrubbed with elder flowers to prevent a new swarm from leaving (Courtney). But bees do not seem to like the smell. When they swarm, a sprig of elder is often held about nine inches above them. The idea is that the elder will drive them out of the tree. In any case, elder has insect-repellent qualities, for it is said that people strike fruit trees and vegetables with elder boughs (or better still, drape them over), so that the scent would kill off troublesome insects (Folkard). Indeed, it is described in Wiltshire as a "charm" against flies (Tanner). Hampshire people recommended a wash made from elderberrries steeped in hot water, to deter gnats from biting (Hants FWI). If flies were troubling a horse, Lincolnshire carters would tie a branch of elder in leaf to the harness, and that would keep them away (Rudkin) (though judging by the state of the flowers towards the end of their blooming period, blackfly seem to be immune). And elders used to be grown by a dairy door, or by an outside privy (Vickery. 1993) for exactly the same purpose (Hartley & Ingilby). It is said, too, to be distasteful to snakes. Thomas Hill, in 1577, wrote that "if the Gardener bestoweth the fresh

Elder flowers where the Serpents daily haunt, they will hastily depart the place", as well as destroying the "Mothes, the canker worms and Palmers breeding in the trees".

There is some weather lore connected with the elder. For example, they say in Cheshire that if the weather breaks while the elder flowers are coming out, it will be soaking wet till they fade - or vice versa, for the belief seems to be that the weather never changes while the flowers are in bloom. Anyway, it all seems safe when the flowers are out:

You may shear your sheep

When the elder blossoms peep (A C Smith)

or, more obscurely:

When the elder is white, brew and bake a pack;

When the elder is black, brew and bake a sack

Belgian people once used elder to foretell future weather by putting a branch in a jug of water on 30 December. If buds developed, it would be a sign of a fruitful summer to come; if no buds, then the harvest would be bad (Swainson. 1873).

In spite of all the warnings about it, elder wood was used quite a lot. Shoemakers used to make their pegs of it, for it is soft and easily worked (Nicholson). Skewers too were made of it, but not for poultry, because it was said that its rank smell tainted the flesh (Baker. 1974). It was the material for net-weaving needles, combs, even mathematical instruments (Hemphill). But it is with musical instruments that elder is particularly associated; in fact, Sambucus is from Greek sambuca, an instrument played by both Greeks and Romans, and made of elder wood. Halliwell defined a sambuke as a kind of harp. Pliny says that pan-pipes and flutes were shriller when made of elder wood (Hatfield), and young boys in the Hebrides with aspirations to being pipers made their chanters from the young branches (Murdoch McNeill). And Irish people, so it is claimed, used to pour molten lead down an elder stick that had the pith removed - it made a useful protective stick on a journey. A piece of "bored bour-tree" was used for blowing up the fire - it was called a pluff (Aitken), or for pop-guns, the pith being so soft and easily removed; they were called Pellet-guns in Northamptonshire (A E Baker), or further north Burtree-guns or Burtree pluffers (Brockett). Rosehips were used as ammunition (Bucks FWI). "In the autumn the pop gun was greatly used and prized. There was always the hunt for a thick piece of elder wood about nine inches long. We scooped all the pith from the centre to make the barrel after which we put half an acorn in each end. Then a firm piece of stick to push (from one's chest) from one end to the other to make a loud pop" (Norfolk FWI).

Various dyes are to be got from the tree - black from bark and root, green (with alum) from the leaves, and various shades of blue and mauve from the berries, with alum, and sometimes with salt (Brownlow), none particularly fast. There is a comment on its durability:

An eldern stake and black-thorn ether

Will make a hedge to last for ever.

Another version has:

An elder stake and a Hazel heather ...

Ether, in the first example, and heather in the second, should be "header" - the rods that are put along the top or "head" of the hedge, to fasten the bushes, etc., down (Cobbett. 1825). They say that an elder stake will last in the ground longer than an iron bar of similar size (Akerman) - in fact in Somerset they say that the elder will not be completely destroyed unless it is burned (Tongue).

Folk medicinal uses range from the genuine to the magical, with some usages roughly half way between the two. Such must be a practice apparently stemming from the doctrine of signatures, for the pith, when pressed with the fingers, "doth pit and receive the impress thereon, as the legs and feet of dropsical persons do", so the juice of the tree was reckoned a cure for dropsy (Dyer). Evelyn mentions it, and so does Gerard, who recommended the seeds for "dropsie, and such as are too fat and would faine be leaner". There are records from medieval times onwards for the dropsy remedy, but it comes as a surprise to find a record (from Cambridgeshire) of elderflower tea as a dropsy remedy in the 20th century (Porter). That same tea is good for colds, coughs, (Maloney), and to break a fever (Stout), as well as for sore throats (so is mulled elderberry wine, which is also said to be good for asthma (Hatfield) ). A concoction of elderberries was a Highland cold cure (Thornton). Elder flower is still infused in Cornwall and used as a tisane for hay fever and catarrh, while in Cumbria elder flower water is drunk for rheumatism.

The flowers are still used as an ingredient in skin ointments and eye lotions (Mabey. 1972). The very first issue of Illustrated London News (1842) carried an advertisement for Godfrey's extract of elderflowers for ladies' complexions. The inner bark and the leaves as well as the flowers were used in Cambridgeshire for the ointment (Porter), but the lotion was made from the flowers only, for "whitening the skin" (Trevelyan), or for washing off sunburn and freckles (Friend). Even drinking the tea was reckoned in Dorset to be good for the complexion (Dacombe). The ointment was used widely for burns, too, which it would cure without leaving a scar, so the belief runs (O'Farrell). All parts seem to be good in this case. The inner bark, for example, "takes out the fire immediately", according to Evelyn. Wesley too prescribed the inner bark for "a deep Burn or Scald".

Rub insect bites with elder leaves, and cover them, rough side for drawing, smooth side for healing (O'Farrell). In Scotland, they used to say that elder leaves gathered on the last day of April, were fine to cure wounds (Banks). Elder ointment was used for jaundice in Ireland (Wilde). In Herefordshire too, the inner rind of the bark, boiled with milk, was taken for the same complaint (Leather), and in Ireland for epilepsy (Barbour).

Elderflower tea is, of course, laxative, though the bark is not, for in Kentucky, tea made from the bark (peeled upward, of course, for if downward it would have the opposite effect) is given for diarrhoea (Thomas & Thomas). There are, too, a number of prescriptions for stomach trouble involving the elder in one way or another. It is of interest to note that the Pennsylvania Germans made a ball of elder bark, and pushed it down a cow's throat when it had indigestion (Dorson). There are a number of other veterinary usages. Gypsies used the leaves to treat a horse's leg - they soak the young shoots from the tips of the leaves in hot water, and bandage them round the lame leg (Boswell). In Ireland, the water in which elder leaves had been boiled was used to dose pigs. Lameness in pigs used to be treated by boring a small hole in the pig's ear and putting in a small plug of elder wood. As the plug withered or fell out, the animal would be cured (Drury. 1985). That sounds very like a transference cure, one of the magical usages in folk medicine, like taking three spoonfuls of the water that has been used to bathe an invalid and pouring it under an elder tree (Dyer). In the same category is the Bavarian belief that a sufferer from fever can cure himself by sticking an elder twig in the ground without speaking. The fever transfers itself to anyone who pulls the stick out (Frazer). And of course virtually all the wart charms are transference cures. The usual practice was like this Welsh one: you take an elder branch, strip off the bark, and split a piece off like a skewer. Hold this near the wart, and rub it either three or nine times with the skewer, while an incantation (of your own composing) is muttered. You then pierce the wart with a thorn and transfix the elder skewer with the thorn, and bury them in a dunghill. The wart would rot away as they decayed (Owen). The Wiltshire version was to strike the warts smartly with the elder twig, saying aloud, "All go away". Then you had to walk backwards towards the midden and throw the twig in without looking (Richardson). Crossing the warts with elder sticks was also a popular charm (Sternberg). There are many others. Both the ague and toothache can be got rid of in the same kind of way. A Welsh charm for the former is simply to stick an elder branch in the ground and bid the ague depart (Trevelyan); the fever sticks to the elder, and fastens on the first person who comes to the spot.

The other kind of magical practice is by the use of amulets, different in that it was usually a prophylactic measure instead of therapeutic. For example, it used to be said in Warwickshire that a child wearing a cross of the white pith of the elder would never have whooping cough (Palmer). Necklaces made of small twigs from a churchyard elder for the same purpose are recorded too (Lewis). That same necklace would have been used to prevent teething fits (Friend), and, in Ireland, for epilepsy (Wilde), and so on. Rheumatism could be cured in a similar way, by carrying the piece of elder, fashioned according to tradition, around with the patient (Hartland). Elder wood in the pocket keeps "the thigh from chafing" (Bergen, Aubrey). Blockwick also mentions an amulet, made from an elder on which the sun never shone, for erysipelas.

After all this, perhaps it is not surprising to find John Evelyn, who was very keen on elder, claiming "an extract, or theriacle may be compos'd of the berries, which is not only efficacious to eradicate the epidemic inconvenience and greatly to assist longevity (so famous is the story of Neander), but is a kind of catholicon against all infirmities whatsoever".

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