There is myth, lore, legend and magic associated with Elderberry, in addition to its revered health benefits. Taking a little trip into the history and ethnobotany of Elderberry proves to be a fun time. This small tree has been with humans for a long time. Many Native American nations have reported extensive knowledge on uses for various parts of Elderberry. Seeds found in Switzerland Neolithic pole-dwellings hint that Elderberry was cultivated as early as 2000 B.C.E. and discovered a long while before that time. In written history, Hippocrates (460- 370 BC) and Pliny the Elder both noted Elderberry’s medicinal properties.
In English and Scandinavian folklore Hyldemoer or ‘Elder Mother’ was said to inhabit the elder tree. Seemingly a Baba Yaga of sorts, Hyldemoer is the goddess or nymph of life and death – and vegetation – and has the power to protect or harm. It was said that one should ask the Elder Mother for permission to take parts of the tree for its herbal and protective qualities, else you may be cursed. One such way to ask permission is to make an offering to the tree and in reverence speak something like “Lacy Ellhorn, give me of thy wood, and I will give thee of mine, when I become a tree”. So, the Elderberry tree and Hyldemoer have mixed reputations.
Maybe some people who didn’t ask had some bad luck – some traditions warn to never burn the wood or cut the trees for fear of cursing. Hyldemoer could be considered fickle, but it sounds like she reacts kindly to being asked permission.
The branches of the Elder tree have also been hung in buildings for protection, the sprigs used on graves to aid the transition from life to death, the wood used in instrument making, its pithy interior used as a fire holder. That pithy interior can be taken out to create flutes. A sacred blow pipe was used to blow special energies into herbal healing formulas by Creek, Cherokee, Mikasuki and Seminole Native Americans. Among the Pueblo ceremonial Elderberry wands and items were made for dances.
It was also warned that furniture, especially cradles, should not be made of elder wood due to cursing… or fairies stealing the cradle and baby and substituting it for a changeling. On the happier side of magic, if you were to stand under an Elderberry on Midsummer’s Eve (or Summer Solstice) you could see the Elf-king and his host.
A few age-old Elderberry uses
- Elder flower infusions for fever
- Bark infusions for sores, eczema, as poultice or wash
- Inner bark tea as emetic, diuretic, laxative
- Fermented berries as tonic, neuritis and rheumatism
- Dried leaves spread around home for insecticide
- Washing one’s face with the dew from elder flowers for beauty
- Elderflower tea before bed to induce a cleansing sweat in the event of cold and flu-like symptoms
- Elderberry drinks for throat complaints
- Fruit syrup for colds and flus
- Wine and Pie
Indications and Activity Supported with Contemporary research
* not found in folklore
- Head Cold*
Though Native Americans use roots, leaf tips, and bark in remedies, Elderberry leaves, twigs, branches, seeds and roots contain a cyanide inducing glycoside. Consuming too much of these parts can result in a build of cyanide in the body. Elder berries should be ripe and cooked before eaten. If one isn’t sure, seek only preparations made by professional herbalists. Elderberry should definitely be treated with care and respect as the wise tales suggest.
Sources and Further Reading
Elderberry Products We Carry
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
This information and these products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.