With cold and flu season upon us, it seems like a good time to talk about the Elder tree or Elderberry. Elderberry has become trendy in the medicine aisle thanks to studies that suggest that it may help fight influenza, but its use in medicine goes back to ancient times in Europe, parts of Asia, north Africa, and North America. It’s also an important feature in European folklore – a bringer of healing and also of death.
Elderberry (Sambucus) is an interesting plant – a large (12 feet/4 meter+) shrub with pretty umbrellas of tiny white flowers in the summer and dark berries in the fall. In the wild, it often grows along streambanks, but it can also be fairly drought tolerant and does well in a variety of soils (it grows well in my yard, which has sub-optimal soil, water, and sun conditions). It likes sun but will grow in part shade, and survives in both hot and cold climates. Elderberry is a survivor. It has hollow stems that have been used for pipes and bellows, but be careful – most of the plant is toxic! Some Native American peoples used the plant to induce vomiting. Only the flowers and berries of certain species are edible (black elderberry is most commonly used), and even then, it’s safer to cook them before using them (and don’t forage berries unless you are 100% certain they come from a safe source).
The flowers can be used to make a tea that’s popular outside the United States. The black berries range from very tart to sort of sweet and are made into jams, syrups, and wines. Some people swear by the syrup as a way to stay healthy in the winter, and some studies have found that people who take elderberry syrup recover faster from influenza, while other studies have found no effect, so the jury is still out as far as an official recommendation. The berries of the edible species are fairly healthy regardless, with plenty of fiber and vitamin C as well as other vitamins and minerals, and the syrup tastes yummy on pancakes.
The contrast between the healthy berry and the poisonous leaves, stems, and seeds of the Elder might be why the folklore around elderberries is so varied. Many European cultures believed that the Elder provided protection from dark magic and other evils when planted near the house or when a small piece was carried with the person. But don’t take a piece without asking! The Elder tree was supposed to be protected by a spirit or Elder Mother who would curse you if you cut the plant without her permission. Luckily, you can ask for permission, and if there’s no response, then you’re allowed to cut (I’ll admit it – I’ve asked, and I’ve never heard a peep in response 😉 ). But you don’t want to use the Elder wood in your house or your cooking fire because you’ll invite in the Fair Folk that honor the tree – I’ve wondered if that piece of lore came from poisonous fumes from the smoke, but I’ve never found a clear answer and never tried burning the wood myself.
Despite its potential protective or healing powers, the Elder tree was associated with winter, darkness, and death in many European cultures. Sleeping beneath the Elder might let you glimpse the Faeries or their home, which was sometimes associated with the land of the dead. Medieval stories said that the Elder was cursed for being either the tree from which Jesus’s cross was made or the one where Judas hanged himself. The Elder isn’t really large or strong enough for either of those purposes, but perhaps its more diminutive nature is part of the curse – there’s a similar legend about the dogwood tree.
Still, with all respect to my Celtic and Norse ancestors, I continue to associate the Elder with summer when its flowers bloom after the spring blossoms have faded, and it’s hard to think of it as cursed when it survives everything the Utah mountains can throw at it. But maybe its association with winter is appropriate if it turns out that it can keep colds and flus away.