Saturday, September 11, 2010

Elder Tree

“Elder Is the Lady's tree - Burn it not or cursed you'll be”.

The Elder tree (Sambucus nigra) is a member of the Honeysuckle family and is one of the sacred trees of Wicca and Witchcraft. According the Celtic Tree Calendar, the Elder is the thirteenth tree of the year and dates from the 25th November – 22nd December, as such the Elder tree is associated with Yule - the Winter Solstice, which in 2008 occurs on the 21st December.

In the summer with its flat-topped masses of fragrant white blossoms, followed later in autumn by drooping bunches of purple-black berries; the Elder is a familiar and much loved sight in the English countryside. It grows in abundance with a minimum of soil and can be found in wastelands, woods, hedgerows and gardens. Mostly the Elder grows as a shrub, bush or small tree, and rarely exceeds nine metres (30ft) in height. Wild in nature the Elder re-grows damaged branches with ease and can root rapidly from any of its parts. Cuttings or twigs broken of the tree and stuck in the ground will soon produce masses of fruit.

A peculiarity of the Elder is its method of growth. At the base of a sapling, stems appear each growing upright, then after awhile as if under weight they bend over creating a curve on top of which a new bud appears. From this bud a new stem grows upright for a while until it too bends over and so its growth continues. The Elder’s trunk therefore is not formed by one upwardly growing mass like the trunks of other trees, but is a patchwork mess of curving drooping stems. This is why the Elder is neither elegant nor reaches any great height. The stems can sometimes reach nearly two feet in diameter, a size indicating several or more score of years, today however we are lucky to be able to find one growing half that size.

The bark of the wood is rough, corky and light brown to grey in colour, its branches are smoother and its twigs a pleasing bright green, but these are pot-marked with small brownish spots caused by the tree’s lenticels. The wood of the main stem is hard and heavy, white with a fine close grain. It is easy to cut and polishes well, and was often used for making butchers skewers or small toys for children. Other uses include shoemaker’s pegs, fishing rods, needles for weaving nets and combs. It being a hard wood, technical instruments and several different musical instruments were made of Elder. The pith from its branches was sliced and used as floats for fishing, while pith from younger stems being exceedingly light, was cut into balls and used for electrical experiments. In medicine, it was used to hold small objects for microscopic sectioning.

White flowers - Purple-black berries
The leaves of the Elder consist of five leaflets attached to a central stalk sitting opposite each other on its twigs or branches. To ensure its leafing capacity, beneath its main leaf-buds the Elder produces a second smaller bud in reserve, but this will only open if the main leaves are lost due to inclement weather, and can remain dormant for a couple of years until needed. Once the leaves have formed, its flower buds begin to grow and by June the tree is awash with thousands of tiny white flowers.

The flowers all look alike and consist of five creamy white petals, on the back of which five green sepals form a star. In between each petal there are five yellow stamens surrounding a cream coloured ovary containing a three lobed stigma. To allow easy cross-fertilization by flies and other insects attracted by the flowers fragrance, the stamens and stigmas mature at the same time. Clusters of Elder flowers grow all at the same level facing the sky and viewed from beneath resemble many tiny star-spoke umbrellas.

In most countries, the Elder tree is intimately connected with magic and witchcraft, and there are many folktales and legends telling of a witch that live in the tree. One such is about Hylde-Moer, the Elder-tree Mother, who lived in the tree to watch over it. Should the tree be cut down and furniture made of its wood, many believed she would follow and haunt the owners. As the story goes, an ignorant woodcutter once cut down an Elder tree to make a cradle for his newborn son, but each time the child was placed in it Hylde-Moer would appear and pull it by the legs, thus allowing the child no peace until it was lifted out.

To cut an Elder permission must always be gained first by asking, and not until Hylde-Moer has given consent by remaining silence, may the tree be cut down.

Magical Uses
As with most trees, one of the main properties of the Elder is that of protection and grown on your land particularly near to the home, helps to protect it from negative energy and lightning attacks. Crosses made of Elder twigs were hung over stables and barns to protect the livestock. People buried objects, items of clothing and even their milk teeth in its shade, to protect the owner from evil spells and disease. Spells were also used to divert illnesses from a sick person into the Elder bush. Pieces of Elder wood worn close to the body will protect against illness, however many people still believed it was dangerous to place Elder in a cradle, fear was that the tree fairies would see this as a sign they could take the child away.

Elder trees can commonly be found growing in old country gardens and cemeteries, for wherever the Elder tree grew was considered sacred space protected by the Elder Mother. The flowers of tree have a slightly narcotic smell and it is considered unwise to rest under it too long, for if you fall asleep you may never wake up. Because of this the Elder has a long association with death. The dead were often laid out on Elder branches and its wood was used to make crosses for graves. In some countries branches of Elder are still put on graves today, and if they sprout, it is a clear sign that the departed person is happy and has been welcomed into Elysium, the blessed realm of the dead.

Elder tree in bloom
If you bathe the eyes with dew collected from the Elder tree, you will be able to see fairies and witches. In the Isle of Man, Elders trees are the main dwelling-place for elves, and in Scotland if you stand under an Elder-tree at Samhain, you can see the fairy host riding by. Scattering Elder leaves in the four winds will bring protection and when used to form a circle, helps to create sacred space. During ritual a flute or whistle made from an Elder can be used to summon spirits.

Medicinal Uses
The Elder has long been noted for its healing properties and was mentioned in the oldest of British Pharmacopoeia’s. To the physician and the wise-woman of old, it was considered “the medicine chest of the country” to those who knew its secrets. Most all parts of the Elder were used in drinks, healing poultices and ointments.

The leaves of the Elder when bruised and worn in the rim of a hat or rubbed on the face will distract flies from settling on the person. To protect the skin from midges and mosquitoes, make an infusion from the leaves and dab it on the skin. Gather a few fresh leaves from the Elder and tear them from their stalks, place them in a jug and pour on boiling water, cover and leave for a few hours. When the infusion is cold, it is fit for use, pour off into a bottle and keep it tightly corked, a fresh infusion should be made often.

Farmers particularly value the leaves of the Elder, which when spread about around barns and granaries deter mice and moles away from their usual haunts. Sheep can and other farm animals can be cured of foot-rot from a decoction of the bark and young shoots. The bark and roots of an old Elder trees was used in the Scotch Highlands as an ingredient for a black dye. The leaves mixed with alum also produce a green dye, and the berries a blue and purple dye.

Elder Flowers Berries have long been used in the English countryside for making homemade drinks and preserves, and are just as popular today as they were in the time of our great-grandmothers. The berries make an excellent homemade wine and winter cordial, which improves with age. Taken hot with sugar just before going to bed, was an old-fashioned and well-established cure for the common cold.

Other Associations:
Gender - Feminine. Planet - Saturn. Element - Water. God and Goddess - Lugh, Dagda, Diancecht, Nuada - Airmid, Banba, Etain, Macha, Druantia and Áine. Magical associations - Exorcism, Protection, Healing, Prosperity, Sleep and Death.

Astrologically, Elder people have a tie to the White goddess. They are very similar to Rowan people. They are very musically inclined and gifted. Most Elder people will be water people as well, having water as their element or even associated with their astrological birth sign. They are excellent healers but need to be careful not to use their gifts to sway other people's wills and choices. They are also excellent seers.


Intuitive Goddess said...

Great Post! Yes, The Ladys' Tree -
Blessed it is!

Diandra said...

Great information. However, the Celtic Tree Calendar was invented around the 1940s by Robert Graves... and the Celtic Tree Hosorcope, before you ask, dates back to 1971. (^v^)

The Blue Faerie said...

I always wondered why Valiente added that bit in there. I can understand not burning a tree for folkloric reasons, but is there some chemical reason behind it? Will it release a toxic cloud? Is elder wood explosive? Does it house a rare species of insect that I might wipe out by setting fire to it? WHAT!?