Tree Medicine, Magic, and Lore: Elder

By Ellen Evert Hopman
Illustration by Will Hobbs

Elder trees are intimately associated with the Fairies. On the isle of Man an Elder was planted by the door just for them. Cutting one down is a profound insult to the Fey Folk who will desert a house where that has happened.

Elder is also associated with Elda Mor (Hylde-Moer), the Elder Mother, a powerful feminine spirit who lives in the tree. Other names for the Elder Mother are Frau Holle or Frau Ellhorn. Elda Mor is a good Goddess to petition whenever there is sickness, especially in children.

The Elder Mother is sometimes regarded as a Goddess of Death and the Underworld. Irish Witch’s brooms were made from Elder twigs. Slavic gypsies wore a wreath of Elder at Halloween so that they could see the spirits soaring by on their brooms, goats, and dragons.

Lithuanians left offerings for Puschkeit, Lord of the Underworld, under an Elder tree at twilight. The Jews of old Prague planted Elder trees in their cemeteries. In the Tyrolean Alps Elder wood crosses were planted on graves. In Britain a hearse driver’s crop was made of Elder wood. Elder branches planted near a grave are said to protect the dead.

Elder branches are easily hollowed making them ideal for bellows and pipes. Tradition holds that the sweetest music comes from Pan Pipes made from Elders growing far from human habitation. If an entire tree is cut down however, any furniture made from it will likely be haunted by the Elder Spirit and is bound to buckle, split, or warp.

In Shropshire, England, it was said that burning Elder in the fireplace would lead to a death in the family and it was a very bad idea to use its wood for a cradle, as the tree’s spirit would attack the child. This was no doubt a way of discouraging the cutting of these valuable medicinal trees. The fresh branches are hung in the cowshed and the house to repel flies. Elder leaves are used in natural insecticides, in 1772 Christopher Gullett reported that cabbages, turnips, and fruit trees could be healed of blight by whipping them with leafy Elder branches.

Witches are said to be able to transform themselves into Elder trees. Warts can be cured by cutting as many notches into an Elder twig as there are warts and then burying the twig in the garden during a waning moon. Elder stake in the ground is said to last longer than an iron bar. An old saying in Sussex;

“An eldern stake and blackthorn ether,
will make a hedge that lasts forever”.

The long association of Elder with Witches probably came about due to Elder’ formidable healing properties. Every part of the tree is medicinally active. The berries are edible in preserves and baked goods and help the lungs and blood when taken as tea. Elder wine benefits rheumatism and neuralgia. The fresh leaves and flowers are used in skin healing salves a fungus that grows on the tree (Hirneola auricula-judae) is used for throat infections.

The bark of the root clears congestion, eases headache, and makes a poultice for mastitis. The tincture of the flowers promotes perspiration and lowers fever. Elderflower water is a traditional remedy for sunburn and skin blemishes, added to the bath it soothes the nerves. Cold Elderflower tea can be applied to eye inflammations and Elderflower oil is rubbed on the sore nipples of nursing mothers.

about the author:

Ellen Evert Hopman is a Druid Priestess, herbalist and author of “Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey”, “A Druids Herbal – Of Sacred Tree Medicine”, “Walking the World in Wonder – A Children’s Herbal” and other volumes. Visit her website for more!

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