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An Elder Story; Part 1

By wildcurious, Sep 4 2017 09:44AM

Also known as; European Elder, Black Elder, Pipe Tree, Bour Tree (Scottish), Ellhorn (Low anglo-saxon) Hyldor, Hylantree (13th and 14th century anglo-saxon).

I have been among the Elders a lot recently, picking my way gently through six foot high thistles, Hemlocks and other magnificent plants that grow nearby.

And while doing so I wonder and imagine what unseen communication is happening between the plants and trees above and below ground between the trees, plants and creatures.

Gathering baskets of Elderberries is a warming and soul enriching pastime, and for me the experience itself is just as important and powerful as the final Elderberry concoctions.

When we open ourselves to wild spaces and places, a part of us becomes wild, and can connect us back to how our fore mothers and fathers would have walked and worked this land.

At this time of year gathering Elderberries is a wonderful way to experience our wild spaces, our hedgerows and woodlands. It really is a challenge not to notice Elderberries as summer cusps to autumn beginnings. Elder is common in hedgerows across the British Isles and is often planted with Hazel, Spindle and Hawthorn, and her heavily laden clusters of purple berries can be seen drooping from striking red stems. The deep red stems are also a good indication of the berries’ ripeness and I often feel an invitation to gather a share of her bountiful crop making sure that leave plenty for others.

The common name ‘Elder’ is thought to derive from ‘Aeld’, the old Anglo-Saxon word for fire and Ellhorn, a name that connects to its historical use of hollowed branches as blow pipes to stoke fires.

There are many kinds of Elderberry but it is Sambucus nigra that is most common and native to our island, and across the continent. The botanical name is derived from ‘Sambuke’ or ‘Sackbut’, an old musical pipe instrument, and indeed into the 20th Century rural Italians made a pipe instrument called ‘Sampogna’, as illustrated below.

Elder is was previously part of the Honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae), and has now been moved the the Adoxa (Adoxaceae), and is related to Pheasant Berry (AKA Himalayan Honeysuckle; Lecesteria Formosa, a garden escape with delicious edible berries). Its growth patterns are characterised by twisting bark and branches rising from the one or more stems. The light grey bark is deeply fissured and the delicate, easily broken branches bend and creak as they sway in the wind.

The branches contain soft pith, easily scraped or poked out, and because of this have been used playfully in the past by children as pea shooters or ‘pop guns’.

Indeed, virtually all parts of the tree have been used in traditional societies, and there are few plants that hold such a deep mythic status alongside a firmly embedded utilitarian nature. Elder has spread her roots throughout our history, folklore, horticulture, medicine, food and more.

Elder's passage through time has seen its mythology transition from that of the powerful and deeply respected Elder mother Hyldor who dwelt in the branches of the tree and was seen as a powerful protector, a keeper of secrets and a guardian.

Elder was lauded as dreaming tree, and a doorway into mythic lands and experiences. Many people are still respectful and thankful when gathering berries, and a belief still lingers that Elder trees (as guardians of the woodland) should not be cut down without an appropriate exchange being offered.

As Christian influence began to dominate, Elder and its associated symbolism began to be chastised, increasingly becoming a symbol of death and sorrow, with legends that Jesus’ cross was made of Elder and Judas hanging from an Elder tree. Though, given the tree’s brittle nature this seems wholly unlikely. Latterly Elder has been planted outside houses as protection against evil forces.

Testament to the Elders embeddedness across cultures, in different countries and even counties different myths and legends abound, both relating to her as protector and as a fearful spirit. Mrs Grieve's Herbal tells us that in the UK we have geographically distinct lore; in Shropshire it was believed that a death in the family would follow the use of elder in the fireplace and on the Scottish borders it was believed that Elder grew only where blood had been shed. In the rural midlands if a child was chastised (beaten) with elder they would cease to grow.

Elsewhere in the British Isles Elder was not feared but still retained strong mythological and magical associations. Elderberries gathered on Midsummer’s Eve were widely said to bestow magic powers on those that gathered and ate them, and in the Isle of Man it was believed that Elders were the main dwelling-place for elves, and a doorway the faerie world.

Check back for ‘An Elder Story: Part 2' to learn about Elder’s historical uses, its phytochemical properties, edible uses, harvesting tips and recipe ideas.

Happy Adventuring



Sep 6 2017 07:19AM by Terry Gardener

Interesting, informative and thoughtful... thank you

Sep 7 2017 08:01AM by Richard Irvine

Fascinating. I was especially pleased to learn about the name deriving from the 'Sambuke' musical instrument. You might be interested in a piece I wrote about small craft items that can be made with Elder : Best Wishes, Richard

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