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Elder - Botany And History

The elder tree has had a long standing history in both Western esoteric tradition and Western herbal medicine. Despite being a part of a decidedly large range of varietals, the use of elder in herbal medicines seems to be relegated chiefly in the Western sphere of alternative healing, (chiefly through the use of Sambucus nigra) although its other varietals (i. e. S. chinensis) have been employed in Eastern settings in much the same vein as its Western counterpart.

The elder can be either a large tree or a small shrub-like plant depending on the species and the climate where it finds itself in. Elders grow best in temperate or subtropical areas, and depending on the quality of the soil and the temperature, elders may exhibit flourishing characteristics which mark them as decidedly large trees with all-encompassing branches and profusely protuberant roots stereotypical of aged trees. All elders however start out as small herbaceous plants that later mature into shrubs.

Elders are characterized by the profuse number of pinnate serrated leaflets. Elders are also well-known for their pretty blossoms, typically whitish or cream-hued, that form in large clusters that bloom during early spring. It is also a fruit-bearing tree, and is known to sport black, red, blue-black or purplish-hued berries that are typically very small and that contain a number of tiny seeds. Some species of elder may even sport yellowish fruit. While the colours of the flowers remain a constant, veering from cream to white and even ivory, the colour of the elderberries vary depending upon the species of elder that bears it. Scientifically, elders are 'classified' or grouped together by the colour of the fruits that they bear, with black, blue, and red elderberries typically belonging to a single distinct species of elder. Other colourations outside of this given spectrum are either classified as stand-alone species, or otherwise associated with pre-existing varieties. [1]

Elder has had a long-standing reputation for being (depending upon the objective culture) a tree of blessings or a tree of ill-omen and evil. In pre-Christian cultures, the elder was commonly thought of as a sacred tree, and groves of elder trees are commonly referenced in folklore as places of worship. In the Christian context however, elder trees became associated with treachery and evil. Regardless of its symbolic associations, elder has always played a strong role in folk medicine and folk pleasantries, having been used since pagan times for both healing, and as a source of healthful and vivifying beverages - a practice that remains to this day.

Elder - Herbal Uses

The use of elderflowers and elderberries has a long-standing tradition in many western cultures, both primitive and modern. Elderflowers themselves are a choice ingredient for any number of culturally diverse yet similarly patterned 'soft drinks' or cordials, which are chiefly composed of elderflowers, a mixture of fruits and spices, water, a sweetening agent, and minor concentrations of alcohol. Aside from the creation of cordials, elderflowers have also been chiefly employed as a primary ingredient in some alcoholic beverages, or as a complimentary flavouring in some types of liqueurs and other alcoholic beverages. They are typically mixed in during the fermentation process to add aroma, body, or subtle nuances to the beverage. [2]

Elder plays a large role in the creation of alcoholic and semi-alcoholic beverages, with its flowers and berries having been employed for such purposes since ancient times. Elderberries themselves, despite being poisonous if consumed in its raw (that is, either uncooked or unfermented) form feature strongly in the creation of a wide array of regional wines, or in the flavouring of some types of spirits. Both the flowers and berries of the elder tree, when prepared properly, can also be edible. In fact, many types of dishes (i. e. jams, marmalades, preserves, jellies) are made from both the flowers and the berries. The beverages made from elder and all subsequent preparations containing them have been traditionally believed to possess curative properties.

Outside of its use as a major ingredient in the creation of beverages and sundry other foodstuffs, elderberries, elderflowers, and choice parts of the elder tree such as its barks and roots have been employed medicinally to treat a wide array of different ailments. A mild decoction of elderflowers, or a ferment made from an infusion of elderflowers and ginger root allowed to sit in sterile water for two to three days may be employed as a remedy for fevers, colds, sinusitis, and throat infections. A more potent brew made from a combination of elder bark and elderflowers may be employed to treat bronchitis and asthma. [3] Generally consuming products made from, or that contains significant amounts of elderflowers or elderberries is also said to significantly boost the immune system and cure general malaise. A very strong decoction of the flowers can be employed as a rinse to treat a wide array of skin allergies, while a decoction of the bark and leaves can be used as a hair-rinse to rid one's person of lice and other external parasites. The roots of the elder tree may be lightly decocted, usually in tandem with warming herbs, and drunk sparingly to treat bronchial trouble. Milder infusions of the flowers may be employed as an eyewash to treat general irritation, redness, conjunctivitis, and the like. A poultice of elderflowers and bark can be used to hasten the healing of sprains, while an infusion of elderflowers in a base oil makes for an excellent liniment for the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, and minor inflammations of the skin. Furthermore, elderflowers may be incorporated into medicated poultices, usually to help facilitate in the faster healing of minor and major wounds, as well as to stave-off infection. This poultice may even help to provide relief for rheumy joints, and for individuals who suffer from gout, or from chilblains and pains from sustained injuries. Tinctures made from elderflowers may even be employed as an analgesic, or as a general tonic to be taken once a day to help improve one's overall health, and can be made by simply allowing fresh elderflowers to macerate in one's choice of liquor (typically, high-proof brandy, vodka, or rum). It should be noted that tinctures must be diluted prior to use.

The bark and leaves of the elder plant may even be used as a purgative and emetic, although extreme care should be taken when employing the plant for such purposes, as it can be dangerous when taken in excess. Syrups can likewise be made from elderflowers, elderberries, or a combination thereof, liberally sweetened with a natural sweetener such as molasses, honey, or jaggery. This can be taken as a quick remedy for hoarseness of voice, sore throats, coughs, and esophageal discomforts brought about by flu or colds. [4]

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, elder is usually prescribed as a remedy for diseases of the lungs, bladder and spleen, chiefly due to its expectorant and detoxifying properties. Aside from the typical preparation of decoctions, infusions, syrups, and tinctures, elderberries and elderflowers may even be dried, powdered and encapsulated, or otherwise made into tablets. The use of these preparations however should be minimal, if altogether nil, as raw elder can be toxic in very large doses, and mildly discomfiting even in minute amounts.

Elder - Esoteric Uses

The elder is perhaps among the most magickal of plants, with folkloric and esoteric references to it running the gamut of centuries. While pagans typically view the elder as a tree sacred to any number of cyclical deities, the Christian esoteric tradition has largely maligned the elder into a tree of decidedly ill-repute. Initially considered a tree that represented the cyclical pattern of life, death, and rebirth, it later became associated (through Christian propaganda) with betrayal, suicide, and ill-omens due to its unfounded association with Yehudah Gen-Iscarii, better known as Judas Iscariot. In Christian lore, the elder was said to have been the tree whereupon Judas hung himself after his fated betrayal of his friend and master, and is then subsequently (following associative logic) a cursed tree. In the magickal context however, elder trees and all articles derived from the plant are prized for their ability to allow oneself to traffic with the Netherworld. The flowers and fruit of the elder are typically prepared into a draught at the height of Samhain both as a ritual offering to the chthonic deities. It is said that this draught, when drunk, could allow the magician to commune with the spirits of the departed. [5]

The twigs, leaves, and root of the tree, while commonly poisonous when employed medicinally, have been used in dried form as a means of protection against hexes and ill-intentions. Likewise, planting an elder near one's homestead or around one's immediate property will help to keep bad luck, sickness, and general evils at bay.

The wood of the elder was just as equally prized as all its constituent parts. Not only is it an excellent material for the creation of wands and staves. Due to the material's affinity to the spirit world, elder wood may also be crafted into flutes or other musical instruments - the music ensuing from which is said to be highly inviting to spirits and other fair folk. In Wicca and traditional folklore, musical instruments made from elder, and any item crafted from its wood is said to be extremely potent for faerie magick. The leaves of elder when dried and powdered, may be used as a protective incense prior to rituals, or employed otherwise to invite departed spirits or familiar spirits to take attendance during rites. Likewise, sprinkling dried elder leaves in the four cardinal directions during raising, or using it to 'draw' a circle is also said to provide impregnable protection against malefic entities, making it useful for ceremonial magicians who specialize in summoning.

Elder - Contraindications And Safety

Because of the toxic nature of elder, all its constituent parts must never be partaken of in its raw form, nor should it be taken internally for prolonged periods of time in extremely large doses unless it be in the form of ferments or alcoholic beverages. Lactating and pregnant women should also steer clear of elder and herbal remedies containing it, as should individuals who suffer from tremors and seizures.

Names of Elder, Past and Present

Chinese: ly ying / jie gu cao / shuo huo
French: sureau noir / susier
German: holunder
Dutch: gewone vlier
Gaelic: alhuren / hylder
Old English: battree / boure tree /eldrum /elhorn
English (common and esoteric names): elder / elderberry / elderflowers (specific plant part) / Old Lady / pipe tree / Lady Ellhorn / sweet elder / tree-of-doom
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Sambucus nigra / Sambucus chinensis / Sambucus canadensis (other nomenclatures exist, depending on the varietals)


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambucus

[2] https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elder-04.html

[3] https://www.snowlotus.org/elder-flower.aspx

[4] https://www.natural-herbal-remedies.net/elderberry-tree.html

[5] https://www.thegoddesstree.com/trees/Elder.htm

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.
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