Beyond Elderberry! Legend and Lore of the Elder ShrubberyJan 20, 2021
Elegant Elder, It’s everywhere you want to be!
Elderberry syrup is all the rage these days, and with cold and flu season, plus a global pandemic, with cases back on the rise, it’s no wonder why! This stuff is a powerhouse when it comes to boosting your immune system, and fighting off viruses.
But, elderberries come from a beautiful shrub, and there’s a lot more to this shrub than just berries.
I thought that today, we could touch on some of the history and lore of this amazing and beloved shrubbery. Much of this information I gathered from Mathew Wood’s "The Book of Herbal Wisdom" and "The Earthwise Herbal". And from Alma Hutchins book, "Indian Herbology of North America".
This shrubbery was also referred to as the Hylde Mother, or Elder Mother. The Elder Mother was the Queen of The Underworld, or Fairy Land. It was known as the doorway to the underworld, or the Magical Fairy Realm. Don’t tell my daughter, or she’ll be sitting at the foot of the elder waiting for the fairies to let her in, and she may not come back! ;)
It was said that the “Little Elder Mother” lived in the tree, or you could enter her home through the tree. Thus, people were not to fall asleep under the tree, or make baby cradles from the wood, for it was said that Fairies loved to kidnap human souls for sport, and they would find you under the elder shrubbery. You may be whisked away to another world, never to return! You might be able to tell my daughter that, as she’s still young enough that she would never want to leave my side for too long!
Elder was a staple in peasant medicine, and became known as the “medicine cabinet” ready for immediate use. From its roots to the stems, leaves, flowers, barks, and berries, there was always a way you could get medicinal benefits from Elder.
The European peasants would place offerings at the foot of the little elder mother, each spring in hopes for good medicine and bountiful crops. It was considered to be potentially fatal to harvest from the plant, without making an offering. Many would notify the Little Elder Mother that their offering would be to eventually return their body to the earth.
Here in North America, Native Americans would place offerings by each plant when they harvested them for use. This is a lesson that people today should really heed. The offerings and respect to the plants and other natural resources, before just taking.
It is also believed that Jesus was crucified on a cross made of Elder wood, and after his death, he went to the underworld. In England, Elder wood crosses were placed on graves, in hope that it would bring that person to a place of peace. They would also place them on doors and windows to disappoint “The Charms of Witches”.
Did you know Elder is actually an invasive species?
In his book, Herbal Antivirals, Stephen Harrod Buhner says “A factor that I have found a primary indicator of strong medicinal action - the invasive status of the plant. For, interestingly enough, many of the strongest antibacterial and antiviral plants are invasive”
The most common species used for medicinal properties is the S. nigra or black elder. It can be found in many places around the world including North America, Europe, Western Asia, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and many Pacific Islands. It’s almost as if mother nature is begging us to use this plant as medicine, to help us heal, to help her heal!
But here in the states, we have more Sambucus cerulea or blue elder. We’ve also got red elder here, or Sambucus racemosa, which isn’t the best to use as medicine, unless you’re going for the flowers in the spring.
The word Sambucus comes from the Sambuca or the pan pipes, which were a musical instrument made from the hollow stems of the elder shrubbery. In Iceland, where they believe heavily in Fairies, it is said that the most haunting music is made from Elderwood. So, the tree is also associated with the Lord of The Underworld, Pan.
It’s a shrubbery I love to see in the winter, spring, summer and fall. It makes great medicine no matter the time of the year, as often one of the best parts about plant medicine is simply being with the plant, and creating that bond, that relationship, that knowingness and becoming one. I walk by some of my favorite elder shrubs in the winter and know exactly who they are, without the leaves, flowers, and berries being present.
They’re woody stems…
Leaves in the spring…
and then their energy returns to the Earth!
The leaves have been used topically to help with wound healing. It’s also used to help speed the healing of bruises, sprains, and other body strains. You can use the leaves to make a salve or oil infusion. They can also be an expectorant, meaning that they’ll help you to get rid of the phlegmy stuff that may come up during a nasty cough or cold. It’s not my ideal expectorant, but it's good to know that you could potentially use them for this purpose.
They’re also a purgative, which means it will help you barf. Doesn’t sound so exciting, but there may be a time in your life, or someone you love, when you need help expelling nasty stuff from your body, and the best way is by vomiting.
Yes, yes, I know… Not pretty
The flowers of this beautiful shrubbery are also often used. While some may find the flowers to have a funky smell, such as Shakespeare who referred to it as “the stinking elder”, they can be used during a cold or flu. They are what's called diaphoretic, meaning that they help your body sweat. Ya, sweating can be important to help your body in fighting off infection and release some of the heat from a fever.
If this has you eager to make some elderberry syrup, I’ve got a free downloadable recipe for you.
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*Always remember to contact your healthcare provider when considering the use of botanical medicine as a possible treatment option and medical considerations. While the information in this article is absolutely relevant, herbs work differently for each person and each condition.
**I am a trained herbalist and not a licensed or registered healthcare practitioner. I cannot diagnose health conditions, nor prescribe medicines legally; I am not a medical doctor. However, I will recommend or suggest medicinal herbs for various health complaints, as I do believe in the safety and efficacy of botanical medicine.
***The information I’ve provided is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
About the Author: Melissa Mutterspaugh
Melissa lives in Oregon, in the foothills of Mount Hood. She's a clinical herbalist, environmental educator, mother, wilderness therapist, lover, nemophilist, music-loving maniac, and the founder of Mountain Mel's Essential Goods. She is passionate about inspiring others to take better care of our planet, by taking better care of themselves, naturally!