In the branches of the Elder Tree dwell an ancient magic, and a dryad who watches over the bark and berries of this tree that stands at the cusp of life and death—the Hylde-Moer, or the Elder Tree Mother is this spirit’s name. In medieval folklore it was said that Judas, that traitorous apostle, was nailed to the Elder Tree as punishment for his betrayal. An old superstition surrounds the Elder Tree that not even a branch could be cut from it without the permission of the spirit that dwelled within, for that would bring ill-luck upon that poor soul. Even poorer was the soul that would fall asleep under the shade of this tree, as they may not awaken into the realm of the living.
Yet this very tree was also a protector against dark witchcraft, and a powerful ward against evil spirits. The common folk of the old English countryside took to tying the leaves of the Elder to their doors and windows, for it was believed that no witch could enter a house protected in this way. There was also a custom to plant an elder bush, trimmed into the form of a cross, on a newly dug grave—and if it blossomed it was said that the soul of the person lying beneath was at peace. Similarly, green elder branches were buried in graves to protect the dead from evil spirits.
The Elder Tree is surrounded by folklore and tied into the magical traditions of medieval times—invoking the sense that this tree was both loved and feared for its powers. In this day, where superstitions have fallen to the wayside, the Elder Tree is known for its dark elderberries—which instead of spirits, protect us from pathogens. Let us turn the page to the less known uses of elderberry, and the traditional medicinal uses of the flowers, leaves and bark of the Elder.
Ancient Medicinal Uses of Elderberry Tree
The inner bark can be collected in autumn from young elder trees and used for a variety of ailments. Primarily the bark is a very strong purgative, and in higher doses can cause vomiting and increase urination—which is precisely what it was used for in the times of the Greek physician Hippocrates who used to purge the body of “bad humors” or what we may today call toxins. For this usage typically 1oz of the bark was infused into a pint of water. Use of the bark has fallen out of favor due to toxicity in higher doses, and the intense vomiting which it can cause—so avoid use without the supervision of a trained herbalist.
The leaves can be harvested in early summer and dried for their medicinal actions. Primarily the leaves were made into an ointment (oil-based preparation) for use in sprains, bruises, and applications to wounds. The Elder leaves were often mixed with other herbs for use topically, with a modern herbal recommendation to create a salve from ½ lb. elder leaves, ¼ lb plantain leaves, 2 oz. ground ivy and 4 oz. of wormwood boiled in 4lb of lard (or coconut oil/butter)—for several hours to make a anti-inflammatory ointment for injuries, swellings and wounds. If the elder leaves are ingested internally, they have a similar purgative effect, and induce severe nausea. The old herbalists believed the juice of the elder leaves to be particularly useful for inflammations and irritations of the eyes.
Elder flowers are primarily used fresh to make elder flower water and have a tradition of being pickled with salt or dried to make an infusion. Elder flower water is an official preparation of the British Pharmacopoeia where it is recommended that 1-part elder flower is mixed with 5 parts water (grams to ml) and allowed to infuse. This mixture is ready when the unpleasant odor transforms into an agreeable aromatic odor. This elder flower water can then be mixed into skin lotions, used as a topical for sunburn, and for keeping the skin healthy.
Elder flowers can also be made into a tincture, mixing equal parts water and alcohol into a container filled with dried elder flowers, and allowed to sit for a month. Similarly, a tea can be made from the dried flowers which is useful for asthma, lung issues, fevers, and diseases of the skin. The tea is also a mild laxative and can help break a fever from its ability to increase sweating.
It is also an old-fashioned remedy for colds, influenza, and sore throats, where a strong infusion can be made by mixing elder flowers and peppermint into boiled water at the first signs of illness. Overall, the elder flowers are a good blood purifier and detoxifying herb, with less of the unpleasant effects of the bark and leaves.
The berries of the elder are of course the most popularly used part of the tree and have an interesting history in ancient times. The Romans, for example, used elderberry juice as a hair dye, where the berries were boiled in wine to make the hair black. The berries also have a rich tradition of use in wines, where they have found their place throughout the ages due to their pleasant flavor, rich color and medicinal properties. It is fascinating that there was a time when elder berries were banned in making wines as they were so commonly used to disguise the cheap nature of wines by con artists that would sell them as expensive vintages. Like the bark and leaves but milder, the elder berries purge the body through the sweat, urine, and bowel movements over a course of time—rather than suddenly as with the other preparations.
Elderberry Wine has a rich history of use taken hot at night in the early stages of an infection, and as a preventative for colds and viruses. An old recipe adds a little cinnamon to this wine, to support its warming and cleansing effects. The classic preparation of elder berries is into a thick syrup, where several pounds of fresh berries are simmered with a pound of sugar until this mix reaches the consistency of honey. The syrup is primarily used to support the immune system, kick colds and as a kind of cough syrup for sore throat. The elder berries are also used in making of jams, chutneys, and other sweet food items. Let us now explore some traditional medieval recipes with elderberries so you can get their maximum health benefit!
3 Traditional Elderberry Recipes:
Syrup of Elderberries:
1) Pick the berries ripe and simmer with a cup of water in a pan, you can also use dried elderberries purchased from your favorite herb shop.
2) Strain the berries out and leave the elderberry liquid.
3) Add chopped up & peeled ginger root, and a handful of cloves to the elderberry juice and boil for an hour.
4) Strain the ingredients out once more to make a pure elderberry infused syrup and bottle it.
5) To use, add about a wine glass full to a cup, add hot water and some sugar or honey to taste—and enjoy for its immune boosting properties.
Elderberry Apple Jam:
1) Gather 6lbs. Elder berries, 6lbs of sliced apples and 12lbs of sugar.
2) Boil the apples in water until soft, and pass through a coarse sieve that can remove seeds and cores.
3) Stew the Elderberries for half an hour and mix them with the apple pulp.
4) Add the sugar and boil all the ingredients together until they are thick.
5) Put them in a jar and refrigerate or can them.
6) Alternate recipes: You can also add the juice and rinds of 1 lemon to add tartness.
7) Eat on toast, or straight out of the jar for a delicious and healthy jam!
1) You’ll need 2lbs elderberries, 1 large onion, 1-pint vinegar, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. ground ginger, 2 Tbsp. sugar, and a spoonful of cayenne, mustard seeds and any other spices you wish to add.
2) Put the elderberries into a pan and mash them with a spoon, chop the onion and add all the ingredients along with vinegar into the pan.
3) Bring the mix to a boil and simmer until thick, making sure to stir well to prevent burning.
4) Put into jars and enjoy it as a condiment with meats and salads.
We have seen the rich folklore surrounding the Elder Tree, and how the berries have been used in cooking and as a medicine since ancient times. With these recipes, elderberries can become a part of your natural immune health regimen and add a fun touch to some of your favorite foods. Elderberries have little chronic toxicity but be very wary of using the bark or leaves without supervision as they can make you understand why this tree was so feared. Thank you for reading and be sure to look down below for special offers!
The Elder is a tree that stands as the guardian between life and death, and is an ancient defense against evil spirits—so I wish you luck in your relationship with this incredible tree and its notoriously delicious syrup. Make sure though, that you never harvest it without asking the dryad that dwells within it for permission—because who knows what is fact and what is superstition 😉.
Dr. Bogdan Makartchuk
Graduate of Naturopathic Medical Program (NUNM), Founder of Kentauros Therapeutics & Host of the Herbal Hour Podcast
References: Margaret Grieve, a Modern Herbal Vol. 1, 2019
To Learn More Elder Tree Folklore: Check out this excellent Herbal Hour Podcast Episode narrated by yours truly. Be sure to subscribe to the Herbal Hour Podcast on YouTube, Spotify or Apple podcasts for discussion on herbs, alternative health and more with naturopaths and herbalists. This episode is 100% OFF (free) 😊 (I made a funny)
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