Elderlore By Carolyn Curtis


When I moved in with my One True Soulmate, we set about transforming his front yard into 100% drought-adapted California native plants. Besides admiring their beauty and feeling smug about saving water, we actually consumed some of them, roasting starchy, sweet soapwort bulbs, making jam out of elderberries and wine from native grapes and elderflowers.

Elderberries and elderflowers are common in European cuisine. Elderflower fritters are a delight of Bavarian cooking, featherlight, ethereally floral. In the mid aughts, a French company introduced an elderflower liqueur, for a fancy price.

But why pay thirty dollars if you’ve got your own elder? Our native blue elder is considered a subspecies of the European plant: Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea. I could soak blossoms in vodka, and in syrup to mellow the hard stuff. So I’ve done just that, picking flower clusters frequently so the tree will keep making more.

I also researched its toxicity. Elders aren’t in the nice safe rose family like apples and raspberries. Better not eat any part of the elder (nausea, diarrhea, etc.) except flowers, dried or treated, and ripe berries, cooked or fermented. However, people, including Native Americans, have been eating elderberries and elderflowers and using the tree medicinally for millennia.

I wondered what Lives of the Trees, by Diana Wells, would say about the elder. This wide-ranging work has cultural biographies of a hundred trees, acacia through yew. Her elder chapter goes into juicy detail about its good and bad magic, which it has more of than other trees. That rang a bell; sure enough, in a certain multivolume saga of wizardry, an elder wand is one of the three Deathly Hallows. But let’s start with the good magic, which perhaps springs from 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. Mother Holle has this good girl shake out her feather bedding “so that it snows in the world.” So: Holle rules the skies and seasons, vegetation and fruitfulness.

Holle/Freye/Berchta is the Germanic version of the nature goddess of so many cultures. Although the elder isn’t in the Mother Holle story, it’s her tree. Its German name is Holunder; the der part corresponds to our word tree, and the first part refers to Holle.

Tacitus, the Roman chronicler of the Teutons, noted that the elder is one of the trees they used for coffins and for future-telling runes. Per Jakob Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie), some rural Europeans would doff their hats or curtsey to an elder. They would plant an elder near the house, handy for medicinal uses, but also to protect the house from witches.

Many are the elder-related customs in middle and northern Europe; here are just a few:

  • Don’t cut the tree (you’ll get a toothache, other disorders), but if you absolutely have to, first you must humbly ask permission.
  • If you move from your house, your elder tree will die.
  • 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.
  • In Denmark, hide in a grove of elder trees on midsummer night to see the fairies as they process to their midsummer feast; in Scotland you do this on Halloween.
  • A thirteenth-century French book of sermons speaks of women bringing their children under the elder along with gifts, so it might bless the children and protect them.
  • 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, you’re going to get sick. (Because the elder might cure you?)

Apparently, people who followed these practices believed that the elder was a portal to the supernatural world. No wonder it was Holle’s tree.

Then it changed. The old gods and old beliefs had to go. Now the elder was the tree used for the cross; Jesus was scourged with elder branches; Judas hanged himself from an elder. (The trees involved are unnamed in the gospels.) Now Holle was an evil spirit with big teeth and wild hair, ready to snatch newborns. Between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, she rides with a swarm of ghosts. Yet in the Mother Holle fairy tale that the Grimms collected in the nineteenth century, she’s still in robust health as a benevolent spirit.

Elders are deciduous. The branches and canes have soft cores, and arch every which way. It’s messy, shedding leaves; the fallen leaves smell bad. Dormancy, only late November into January in northern California, is much longer in cold England and northern Europe, so people there see the almost leafless elder, scraggly and spooky, for longer.

I enjoy reading about these old European beliefs, ancestors trying to make sense of their world. 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. 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. No cold shiver, no soft voice calling out. Just vegetation.

But it’s easy to be impressed by the fierce vitality of this plant. Shortly after I chop off every single branch and cane that the tree grew that year, brilliant green shoots burst forth all around the stump. A few months later come the fragrant, creamy flower clusters that I snip for our frivolous uses; in midsummer I step into the street to admire the whole massive spectacle. It will flower and bear into November.

She’s still on our side.

All rights reserved. Please ask permission of the author to reproduce or use this work in any form.