When I moved in with my One True Soulmate back in 1994, we set about transforming the front yard of his Palo Alto home into 100% drought-adapted California native plants. Besides admiring their beauty and feeling smug about saving water, we’ve actually consumed some of these plants over the years, though we don’t depend on them as the Native Americans did. We’ve roasted and eaten starchy, sweet soapwort bulbs; not bad, they don’t taste soapy. We’ve used leaves of native sages as seasonings (strong!). We’ve steamed the small leaves of wintercress and dressed them with olive oil and garlic as you would kale, its distant relative. I’ve made jam out of our elderberries and we’ve made wine from our native grapes and elderflowers.
Elderberries and elderflowers are common in European cuisine. Elderflower (elderblow) fritters are one of the delights of Bavarian cooking, featherlight, ethereally floral. You can get terrific, and cheap, elderflower wine in health-food stores in England. Any Ikea store offers elderflower juice, syrup, or both. In the mid aughts, a French company introduced a liqueur flavored with elderflowers, packaged in an elegant Belle Epoque bottle, selling for a fancy price.
So I bought a bottle to try (very nice), and then thought, why pay thirty dollars when elderflowers are right out there in the front yard? I knew our native elder was a close relative of the European species. I also knew we wouldn’t get up to the standard of the French product, but I could at least soak, excuse me, infuse some blossoms in vodka. And in syrup, for that matter, to add to the hard stuff to mellow it out. (Way easier than making elderflower wine.) So I’ve been doing just that for the past several summers, coppicing our elder tree when it goes dormant, so that when it starts blooming in May I’ll be able to reach the flower clusters, picking them frequently so the tree will keep making more.
I also thoroughly researched the toxicity question. Elders aren’t in the nice safe rose family like apples, raspberries, and our other common fruits. You don’t want to eat any part of the elder (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other unpleasantness) except flowers, dried or treated, and ripe berries, cooked or fermented. One source advises straining out the seeds, even from jam. However, elderberries and elderflowers have been eaten for millennia, including by indigenous people on this continent. Furthermore, almost all parts of the plant have been used medicinally for millennia as well, documented from Hippocrates on. The native Californians used it medicinally as well. If you’re interested in herbal medicine, you probably already know some uses.
Reading the warnings, I wondered what Lives of the Trees, by the British-born Diana Wells, would say about the elder. This entertaining and informative work has two or three pages of lore on each of a hundred trees, acacia through yew. Her elder chapter goes into juicy detail about the tree’s good and bad magic, which it seems to have more of than other trees do. That reminded me of something in a certain multivolume saga of witchcraft and wizardry; sure enough, a particular wand of elder wood is one of the three Deathly Hallows. Why did the author choose that wood for that purpose? Hm. But let’s start with the good magic, which perhaps goes back to those age-old medicinal uses.
Wells mentions the tale of Frau Holle (Mother Holle), collected by the Grimms—a delicious fable, in which the good, industrious girl is rewarded. (Go read it.) Mother Holle makes sure this good girl always shakes out the feather bedding “so that it snows in the world.” This points to Holle’s identity as ruler of the skies and seasons, and with them vegetation and fruitfulness.
Holle is the same as Freye (also Berchta), the Germanic (including English) version of the mother goddess/nature goddess/great goddess prevalent in so many cultures. A cleric writing in the Germanic realm in the tenth century equated her with Diana. Although the elder doesn’t show up in the tale of Mother Holle, it is her tree. The German name for it is Holunder, with the der part corresponding to our word tree, and the first part (originally stressed on the first syllable) referring to Holle.
Going way back to the classical era, Tacitus, the Roman chronicler of the Teutons, notes that the elder is one of the trees they used for carving runes (cast to predict the future) and making coffins. Closer to the present, some rural Europeans would still salute an elder, doffing their hats or curtseying, to show it was sacred to them. (Jakob Grimm mentions this in his exhaustive and fascinating Deutsche Mythologie.) They would make sure an elder was planted near the house, handy for all those medicinal uses, for one thing, but also to protect the house from witches.
Many, many customs in middle and northern Europe; the more you look, the more you’ll find:
• Don’t cut the tree (you’ll get a toothache, other disorders), but if you absolutely have to, first you must humbly ask permission (uh oh, better start doing this when I cut it back).
• If you move from your house, your elder tree will die.
• Put elder twigs into a coffin (presumably a wooden coffin, this is an old belief) with the body; if they take root and become a tree, the soul is happy.
• Serve elderflower tea at a wake (still done, apparently).
• Mark a grave with a cross from the wood of an elder growing on the dead person’s property. Elderflowers have been found in English barrow graves.
• Bury fingernail cuttings and fallen-out teeth and hair in its shadow to keep them from being used for—basically voodoo.
• In Serbia, elder twigs during the wedding ceremony guaranteed good luck to the couple.
• In Denmark, hide in a grove of elder trees on midsummer night to see the fairies in their procession to their midsummer feast; in Scotland you do this on Halloween.
• A thirteenth-century French book of sermons speaks of the custom of women bringing their children under the elder along with gifts, that it (she?) might bless the children and protect them from danger.
• Use elder wood for the handle of a coach whip.
• Healing charms: bend a branch and recite a phrase to get rid of fever, headache, etc.
• Prevent rheumatism: take an elder shoot (ask permission first, I presume), tie knots in it, and wear it against your body.
• Transfer magic: take three spoonfuls of a sick person’s bathwater and pour it onto the elder’s roots; cure epilepsy by lying under an elder upon the first attack; for pneumonia lie there with outstretched arms; rub a wart with a green twig and bury the twig.
• If you dream about an elder, though, it means you’re going to get sick. (Because the elder might cure what ails you?)
Apparently, the people who followed these practices believed that the elder was a portal to the other world, the world of the supernatural, the sacred. No wonder it is Holle’s tree.
Then it changed. The old gods had to go, and all the beliefs associated with them. Now the elder was the tree used for the cross; Jesus was scourged with elder branches; Judas hanged himself from an elder. (The elder doesn’t grow in the eastern Mediterranean; other legends have other trees in these roles; the trees involved in these events are unnamed in the gospels.) Holle herself was now an evil spirit with big teeth and wild hair, ready to snatch newborns. In the spook time of year between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, she would ride with a swarm of ghosts. Yet in the fairy tale of Mother Holle that the brothers Grimm collected in the nineteenth century, she is still in robust health as a benevolent spirit.
Elders are deciduous. The branches, and also the canes that come up around the central trunk, have soft cores (pith), and thus less structural integrity than those of other fifteen-foot plants. These canes and branches arch every which way, and bend and break. It’s a messy thing, shedding leaves; the fallen leaves smell bad. The dormancy period, only late November into January in northern California, is much longer in cold England and northern Europe, so people there have longer to see the almost leafless elder, scraggly and spooky. This dormancy period of course includes the nights from December 24th through January 5th. Also, elders like swampy places, which can be a little creepy.
As you may have gathered, I enjoy reading about old European beliefs like those above, ancestors trying to make sense of their world, hoping to master their fate. I’m not a mystical person; I don’t even go in for herbal medicine. However, after finding out about Frau Holle, I tried to connect, as it were. A couple times last summer when our elder was at its fullest, its canes arching down to the ground, I edged deep into it and stood there for a while. I also tried this when it started to go dormant, those tall, arching canes almost naked around the stump. No cold shiver, no soft voice calling out. Just vegetation. Oh well. That’s enough for me.
But it’s easy to be impressed, warmed even, by the fierce vitality of this plant. Shortly after I chop off every single branch and cane that the tree has grown that year, brilliant green shoots burst forth all around the stump, completely hiding it within a couple weeks. A few months later come the fragrant, creamy flower clusters that I snip for our frivolous uses, and in midsummer I step out to the street and admire the whole massive spectacle, the flowers and steel-blue fruit clusters standing out against the big floppy compound leaves. It will keep flowering and bearing into November.
She’s still on our side.