With colds, the flu, and COVID-19, elderberry syrup has made a lot of appearances in various “crunchy” and DIY blogs. Elderberry is touted as an herbal “medicine chest” — even Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder had a hard time overstating the herb’s value. It’s said to improve allergies, inflammation, sinus problems, and pain, and, with prompt use, shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms.
That’s not all elderberry is used for, though. This tree, with its white flowers and dark, shiny berries, has a lot of folklore and a long history of magical use behind it.
Elder Magical Uses and Folklore
The elder tree is believed to house a spirit with the power to help or harm. In Denmark, it is Hylde Moer. Elsewhere, it was dryads, or simply the Old Lady of the Elder tree.
Taking any of the tree’s gifts has to be done with permission. If permission is granted, they have the power to heal and protect. If it isn’t, they have the power to harm. One charm for cutting elder wood goes:
“Old Lady of the Elder Tree,
Let me have some of your wood,
And, when I am a tree,
You may have some of mine.”
In southern Italy, the wood is used to drive out evil, and protect against thieves and serpents.
In Germany, hanging elder branches in a home on Walpurgisnacht protects from evil.
The spongy centers of elder branches are soaked in oil and used as a kind of lamp wick to reveal all of the witches in an area.
In England, carrying an elder stick or cross made of elder wood was said to protect from rheumatism.
Building a cradle from elder wood is a bad idea, for spirits with pinch and poke any child that sleeps in it.
It’s considered a very bad idea to burn elder wood. In Ireland, it was believed that burning elder would would make you see the devil in the flames. Part of the Wiccan Rede goes as follows:
“Elder be the Lady’s tree. Burn it not, or cursed be.”
(Considering the cyanide content of uncured fruitwoods, and the fact that hydrogen cyanide is liberated by heat, this is probably very good advice!)
The scent of elder flowers is said to be narcotic in nature. Sleeping under an elder tree would cause the sleeper to dream of the fairy realm, or else not wake up at all.
Magically, carrying elder wood, leaves, twigs, or berries is said to protect you from harm, while hanging elder branches over doors and windows of a building protects its occupants.
Elder is associated with death and rebirth — all parts of the plant are toxic (except the ripe, cooked berries), and elder grows quickly from cuttings.
Elder wood is used for wands, and for making instruments whose music is said to be favored by spirits.
In some situations, elder is used as a commanding herb.
All parts of the plant produce cyanogenic glycosides, hence all of the old admonitions against the improper use of elder. The berries are used medicinally, but that’s only after proper preparation.
Magically, elder is a powerful tree — which stands to reason, since the plant itself contains the power to heal and kill. Any tree should be asked for permission before gathering its products, but that goes double for elder. From what I have read, elder wood should be avoided for mundane purposes, and its use should be restricted to magical tools.
Elder has gotten a lot of press lately because of its use as a remedy for respiratory illness, but there’s only so much it can do. It can help with sinus problems, inflammation, and shorten cold and flu symptoms, but the best way to keep from getting sick is still to eat well, rest well, stay hydrated, and stay away from people.