A few weeks ago I bought a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.
It was only 10p and I suppose at the back of my mind I quite fancied a trip down memory lane. As I flicked through the book one story stuck out, and it wasn’t one I recalled from the first time round. The Elder Tree Mother is essentially a tale within a tale following the course of a young boy’s life, the twist being that the story is told to the central character. It goes thus: an elder tree magically sprouts from a pot of elderflower tea and, from among its foliage, the elder tree mother appears in a green gown adorned with fronds of elderflowers. She is woven through the narrative as a mother earth type figure, nurturing and guiding him from childhood illness through to old age.
In reality the multiple medicinal qualities of the elder do enable it to heal from the cradle to the grave. In herbal medicine it is known to treat a raft of ailments, from feverish colds to rheumatism. However, parts of the elder are also capable of poisoning. After reading the story and considering the tree’s therapeutic value it occurred to me that the ‘elder tree mother’ probably had roots going back way beyond Andersen’s era. As I began to research its origins I realised I was charting the elder tree’s significance and changing role through the centuries, even to the present day.
Tree spirits were once an accepted part of European culture. In Germany they were known as waldgeisters. Deep in the forest the rustling of leaves overhead was believed to be tree spirits whispering to one another. Some tree spirits were considered dangerous and malevolent, others healing and benevolent. The kindly spirits were thought to understand all the secrets of medicinal plants. The spirit said to live in the elder tree was called hylde-moer (elder mother). Such was her positive influence it was said that dreaming of an elder tree was an augur of wealth and contentment.
Elder mother possessed ancient healing knowledge but was thought equally capable of inflicting injuries on those who damaged her tree. This fear persisted until at least the last century, when chopping an elder down was believed to cause the death of a close relative or to kill you within three days. The safest course was to respectfully doff your cap or give a prayer of thanks to her before daring to prune an elder or even pick her berries. This superstitious ritual was traditionally accompanied with the words “Lady Elder, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest”; perhaps a remnant of a far older rite.
With the introduction of Christianity the role of the elder in folklore became confusing and fluctuated wildly between magical and evil. It’s hard to know exactly why it started to take on such negative connotations. Perhaps the poisonous nature of parts of the plant were to blame? Perhaps the previously held beliefs in the power of the tree made it a threat to the church? Whatever the truth, Christianity slowly began to assimilate the elder tree into its own story. Initially in the Middle Ages it was claimed that Christ’s cross was made from elder, which both blessed and cursed it in people’s minds. Later it was said to be the tree Judas hung himself from although, given the flimsy nature of the average elder tree, this seems a little unlikely.
Within a few centuries, the kindly elder mother had metamorphosed into a frightening witch in popular folklore. Gradually the elder tree not only became associated with witches, but also evil spirits, eventually earning it the colloquial name Devil’s Wood. Witches were said to turn into elder branches when they wanted to hide in a hurry. If a cradle was fashioned from its wood, the elder witch would pinch the baby black and blue. If you burnt elder wood at home then the devil would sit on your chimney, or enter the house. A cut piece of elder could be dipped in oil, lit and floated on water, where it would immediately point to any witch present.
Conversely, sprigs of elder were hung outside cow sheds to protect the cattle from evil spirits and witches. Amulets made from elder wood were sometimes carried to repel witches. Other rural myths claimed that an elder bush in your garden would not only prevent a witch from visiting but protect you from her spells. In The Art of Simpling by William Cole, written in 1656, he explains similar local beliefs:
‘The common people formerly gathered the Leaves of Elder upon the last day of Aprill, which to disappoint the charmes of Witches they had affixed to their Doores and Windowes. I doe not desire any to pin their Faiths upon these reports, but only let them know there are such which they may believe as they please.’
In parts of Europe, April 30 is known as Walpurgis night, the evening when witches meet. In British folklore the last day of April is the eve of Beltane, a fire rite celebrating the coming of summer. Beltane was also a time when tree spirits, like elder mother were mollified with food offerings.
Each country, and sometimes county, had different elder beliefs; the prevailing theme of them all seems to have been that the tree possessed mystical, magical powers. It was certainly important to communities before modern medicine, being considered the poor man’s apothecary, every part said to be of medicinal use. As the 17th century writer, John Evelyn said of the elder:
‘If the medicinal properties of the leaves, bark, berries etc, were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our countryman could aile, for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or wound.’
There were a myriad of treatments made from various parts of the tree, some of which are still used today. One old and fairly wacky remedy, which has thankfully fallen out of favour, was made from elderberries and snails. It is found in The Anatomy of Elder written during the 1620s by German physician, Martin Blochwich. He calls it Mucilaginous anodyne liquor, but plain old Syrup of Snails would do just as well as a title. I have quoted it before but this close to Halloween it’s worth sharing one more time. Hold on to your dinner folks:
‘Of quick snails, newly taken out of their shelly cottages; of elderberries dried in the oven, and pulverized; and of common salt, each as much as you will; put it in the straining Bagg, called Hippocrates sleave, making one row upon another, so off on as you please; so that the first be of the snails, the next of the salt, and the last of the berries, continuing so till the bagg be full; hang it up in a Cellar and gather diligently the glutinous liquor that distils out of it little by little.’
Despite the weird and not so wonderful concoctions in centuries gone by, elder is a healing plant which is still considered medicinally important. Every herbal book I own makes mention of its many attributes. In fact, as I piled my books up to research this piece, I realised I could easily have stacked them to my height, and a bit further.
Other than its use in herbal remedies, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the end of the elder tree’s story and its importance in our everyday lives. To some extent this is true, apart from elderflower cordial and maybe the occasional bottle of homemade elderberry wine you might assume that its power has finally faded from the mainstream.
However, the magical force of the elder lives on. New life was breathed into it in one of the most successful book series of all time – Harry Potter. Its story is relayed in The Tale of the Three Brothers where Death grants the wand as a gift. It is said to be ‘the most powerful wand in the history of wizardkind’. At the end of Potter’s story it is the elder wand which brings peace, ultimately helping light overcome darkness. The significance of a wand made from elder is possibly lost on some readers but perhaps elements of the ancient tree spirit remain. Maybe the hylder –moer is still there in her green gown, adorned with fronds of elderflowers, glimpsing out of our deep collective consciousness, still secretly capable of bestowing both life and death.
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences of using the above herbs combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate; in the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. Always check if any pharmaceutical medication you are taking is compatible before trying herbs. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the herbs mentioned above please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.