Elder or elderberry
is native to most of Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia. It is
commonly named elder or elderberry, but has got many other names like
Black elder, European elder/elderberry, Elder Bush etc. The Latin
Sambucus is a Greek word for instrument, and nigra means black in Latin,
black like the elder berries. It grows in a variety of conditions , it
stands shadow, frost, salt and wind well. The leaves and the bark
contain bitter substances, but not as much as the related red-berried
elder. The whole elder bush except the flowers and the berries is
The plant was possibly introduced to Denmark in prehistoric
time. It is common all over the country, but grows especially at
houses, in fences, edge of woods, as underwood etc. It has been in Denmark
since Ertebøllekulturen, a
Stone Age culture between 5000-3000 B.C.. About 300 years ago the elder grew in big numbers all over the
Danish country, especially in villages, upon church yards, at fences, in
cabbage gardens and in hop gardens etc.The ripe berries are
very sought after by birds, and today the elder has spread by the help
of birds up to the northern part of Sweden and in Norway up to the
is an old medicinal plant. Also prehistoric people, the Egypts, the
Greeks, the Romans used the elder as a medicinal plant. Dekokt from the
flowers was supposed to be antipyretic and diaforetic, and the berries
were used to relieve cold and flue. The leaves, flowers, branches,
roots, bark, berries were used to heal many diseases like earache,
headache, deafness, boils, indigestions, heart pain etc.
in the kitchen is elderberry good. The flowers are used in the popular
elderberry-drink, and they taste well when dipped in a thin pastry,
fried and sprinkled with sugar. The berries are used in juice and soups.
They have a very high content of A- and C vitamin. Several things: tea
from the dried flowers; wine and snaps of berries and flowers; put the
berries in sugar and eat them like red-currants; the green berries in
vinegar and sugar make fine capers. The flowers have also been used in
If you rub elder-leaves against your skin it is said to
keep mosquitos away, or if you carry a fresh branch or stand under an
elder-bush! The berries should have the same effect, and you can use
them as an insect repellant, if you like the colour purple!
gardeners use a strong elder extract as a means against plant diseases.
It is considered effective especially against fungal diseases in fruit
trees and against aphids. It is also good as an addition in the compost
heap and active against caterpillars in seed plants.
kinds of Sambucus contain a poisonous substance:Samburigin
(cyanoglykocid) in leaves and in the unripe fruits. The druehyld is the
most poisonous but its poisonous effect is limited to stomachache. In
the past the sambucus was used as a vomiting means . The seeds in all
sambucus contain a resin which gives dizziness and is diuretic , but
the resin is destroyed by cooking.
The elder was called the Poor Man's Tree, the elder had no homestead - and yet it belonged everywhere.
Below material from V.J.Brøndegaards Danish work "Folk og Flora" bd. 4
Use of elder branches, wood, marrow:
elder was the favourite tree of all foresters, it was used as hedgerows
around the new-planted woods. In Jutland, especially in West Jutland
elder was planted as hedgerows in the fields and around the dunghill in
order to give shadow, so the sun did not dry out the power of the
were used for wicket sticks and for fuel. The wood was used to make
spoons, shoe plugs pipe tubes, truncheons, spinning wheels, reels,
looms, yarn reels, rules, meter rules, handles, fishing needles, and
young shots were used for enemas. In Svendborg (Funen) was found a spoon
from the 1200-1300s, made of elder wood.The wood gave good charcoal and
from the ashes was made potash.
Furniture made of elder wood did not get worm-eaten
used a "blowing pipe", (made from a stick where the marrow was removed)
to blow the fire in the morning on the embers in the fireplace.
fodder for the bees was placed in an out-marrowed elder stick. Upon the
island Agersø people smoked herring with green leaves of elder or ash.
The marrow was also used for polishing optic lenses and for electrical
Use of elder berry, leaves, flowers:
juice was commonly used, and no farmer's wife or house wife did not
know how to cook the berries or have som house depot in case of need.
went out in the countryside with baskets, gathering berries for sale,
they were sold in shops and on market places for the juice making.
(1875) Upon Copenhagen's marketplace was in 1967 sold 160.380 kilo
the berries was also made a snaps (1890).In july 1603 the Danish queen
was delivered elder flowers, strawberries and red roses for having made
Juice and sugar in snaps gave a "redwine-toddy". Elder tea was
made from dried flowers. Old people drank each night a cup of elder tea
in order to keep themselves healthy. The tea was sweetened with syrup.
It might be spiced with cinnamon, mint or yarrow. In winter season elder
tea was often used instead of coffee (1880-90). The coffee was sweetened with elderberry syrup.
flowers gave a spiced elder vine. Apples and pears get a taste like
muscatelwine if they for some time have been placed among elder
flowers.The fruits gave an elder wine and the seeds an oil (ab. 1800).
= cooked juice + honey on bread instead of butter (1809) . The berries
were dried in the oven or in the sun and saved for elderberry soup.
Young green leaves were used in cabbage soup and omelet (1920) Dried or
sugar-cooked elderberries = currants. Green pickled berries were used
as capers. The flowers were baked in the panncakes.
the marrow was removed or being burnt out with a thin iron stick so a
piece of a branch made a pipe Small bullets made of paper, yarn,
potatopieces, or marrow were pressed down with a loading-stick into the
pipe in the opening.
boys made very long elder guns. A farmer at the island Fanø paid a boy 4
skilling to shoot against the priest while he was preaching in the
church, but the boy hit the dove in the sounding board above his head
Harpestræng ab. 1300: Elder gives vomit. Cooked leaves or oil from
elder heal mange and blisters - open and clean wounds, ease earache.
bark and berries crushed with vinegar used as a cover for head pain,
the juice from the seeds to drip in the ear against deafness and
earache. Beer decoct from bark against constipation, the juice from the
root against dropsy.
Pedersen 1533: destilled flower-water was a part of an advice against
headache, flowers or leaves cooked in beer for spleen disease,
Smid 1546 the cooked berry juice was a good antidote and was used
against inner swellings and all poisonous fluids which came with the
Paulli 1648: linen with destilled elder-water or a decoct of a red
cow's milch to put upon the skin disease erysipelas (red skin).
The elder bark, buds, flowers and berries were specified in the Pharmacopoeia in 1772, the berries up till 1948.
The elder syrup was one of the farmers most popular universal means (except snaps) ( 1770).
Elder puré cooked with berry juice + honey works sudorific, dissolving, laxative etc.
No farmer must forget to have this medicin, which he can easily make himself. (1800)
Where someone has an elder and a beehive in the garden the doctor need not to come.
The elder was like a home pharmacy to the farmer.
The physician Th Bartolin 1616-80 adviced the pesasants to drink a decoct from young elder leaves against dropsy..
The peasants drank ( 1798) the juice from the fresh root.
Oil mixed with elder in wine was used against fatigue.
Elder flowers were a part of a means against blatterstone (1720).
The bark eased all stomach ulcers.
Smoke from henbane-seeds was lead through an elder-stick to the bad tooth.
A spice-bag with dried elder flowers upon the cheek.
Cure against malaria:
Elder tea with camphor drops..
The patient had to eat the first elder spring-shots of the year.
Tea from the flowers counteracts fever attacks.(1800)
Elder tea with egg yolk is a good sweating cure against fever diseases.
Elder tea with honey eases cough and pain in the breast.
People bathed running eyes with a milch decoct from the flowers.
Poultice against haemorroids , flowers soaked in vinegar against thick knees.
balm of fresh flowers mixed in lard or vaseline bound upon scalding or
burns (ab. 1800) - or upon chronic wounds. It was a good cure to bath
pimples with elder-flower water added rum or brandy.
Tea from elder flowers mixed with lard was a fine beauty means in 1900.
elder leaves against swellings, abscesses, felon, (the upperside of the
leaves draws out the inflammation, the underside heals the wound.)
Adderbite: bind elder leaves and mustard upon the bite.
balm of the green middle bark cooked or fried with thick cream and
rubbed or put upon open wounds or impetigo, throat-abscesses and excema
on children's head, on their felon and ringworm
oatmeal and goose-shit upon swelling after forgiftning. and with
swine-lard upon bone-infection. A wise man blew through an elder stick
leaves were used against the horse-jaundice and elder tea against
horse-hives. Elder syrup was used against cattle plague (1745) . A good
cure was to bath the cow's teeth, mouth and tongue with tea of elder and
camomile flower and sage, added honey and saltpeter (1750). Elder +
butter healed wounds and fissures on the cow's udder.
juice was the ingredience in a cake for sheep's cough (1632) . Dried
and crushed berries with salt against the sheep's liver fluke and tea of
elder leaves for lamb with tetanus.
Chicken could get sick by eating the green berries.
most parts of Denmark people put the new leaves and/or the debarked
branches down in the passages of the moles. The moles would flee because
they didn't like the smell. (1800)
harvest-time the farmer put a green elder branch on each corner of the
barn in order to keep mice and rats away from the corn.
crickets could not survive in a room warmed up by elder wood (1761) -
and the smoke from fresh leaves and branches upon a brazier drove them
put elder leaves in their button-holes to keep away the mosquitoes.
Concentrated elderwater was recommended for rubbing the skin against
branches put by the entrance of the house drove away flies from house
and stable. Leaves were spread upon the floor against bedbugs and put
into the bed as a protection against pests.
juice mixed with lard = a balm which protected the horse against
insects. The top of the branches were the part of a decoct which was
used to bath the cattle against flies.
elder was a popular bush by the living house because it kept away moths
. Little bags with dried flowers put among the clothes could drive away
and vessels which smelled moldy had to be rubbed with a handfull of
fresh-plucked leaves from elder or blackcurrants. (1880)
If the milch in the summer-time got a bluestained surface the vessel had to be rubbed inside with green elder leaves.
branches and leaves give a green/brown colour,especially for saddles.
The bark dyes bismuth-treated wool bluegrey, the linen stained with alum
and cooked with the berries and verdigris gets yellowbrown. The berry
juice makes paper purple and snaps reddish or bloodred.
If an elder grows up by the house it means good luck.
If an elder is blooming twice in a year or in winter it is an omen that a death will happen in the owner's family
When the elder berries are ripening the chicken begin to drop their feathers.
If the elderflowers send out an extraordinary strong scent it will be rain or thunder.
When the cat tears the elder tree it will be rain.
are many alike prophecies about the elder.tree growing by a church.
When it is so big that it is possible to bind a horse by the tree a king
will arrrive upon a white horse. He will bind the horse by the elder
tree and go into the church. Or: Two kings will meet and bind their
horses by the elder tree. They have come to negotiate about peace.
Magnus and his men are sleeping under the elder tree but if Denmark is
in need they will wake up and come to rescue the country.
Legends and myths.
elder is often gnarled and crippled. It was said that Judas Iscariot
hang himself in the elder tree. Upon the elder grows the fungus Jew's
ear (In Denmark called Judasøre)
elder with branches like human fingers like the fingers of a murderer
grew up from the grave of a a murdered shepherdess in a village south
of the town Tønder (Jutland).The tree was removed in 1930. An elder upon
Helnæs (Funen) could not be removed. It grew up again. According to a
legend a child was killed and buried here.There was supposedly a
treasure under an elder by the village Tanderup (island Samsoe). People
had seen light there in the night. East of the island Omø people can see
a green elder on the bottom of the sea in clear weather.
A Jutland saying: "No man can live where the elder cannot grow."
It was a common belief that an elder must not be removed or destroyed.
Then bad luck would really hit the family, but they could bring the bad
luck to and end by wetting the stub with milch. This was done even as
late as 1924 in a village at Zealand.
If a man removed an elder
without first having said a prayer he would have bad luck with his
domestic animals. It was considered a neccesity that an elder bush grew
upon each giant grave hill. No one can say why but this rule was
followed in many places all over the country. It was dangerous to remove
it from the hill. After having removed an elder tree upon a giant grave
hill in a village on Funen and brought it home as fuel, the owner's
farm was harrassed by ghosts and his cattle died . So he brought the
elder root back to the hill and planted it.
In a farm in North Jutland the chicken were bewitched and could not
lay eggs. A wise man let cut two elder sticks which he marked in a
certain way and placed as a cross under the roof of the hen house - This
The farmer planted the elder outside the stable door and hoped thereby to prevent the witches to reign inside.
Sickness placed inside the elder.
was considered possible to place a sickness inside the tree by the help
of a nail.. A wise man put in this way the sickness of a boy (rakitis)
into the elder tree. Still in 1885 were used warnings against coming
close to a lonely placed elder tree, which might have been implanted
"He who draws out the nail gets the disease". said people. This was still a belief in 1937 ( Schleswig).
Children who were playing near the elder were warned not to remove plugs from the tree.
A wise man from Funen made a cut in a branch for each wort of a
patient and rubbed blood from the patient into the cuts In this way the man
got rid of 37 worts.
People had to take care not to come
close or damage certain elder trees since they risced to get the
sickness which had been put into them. It was also dangerous just to
urinate on the tree.
A wise woman in the village Asminderød lead the patient through an opening made
of together-bound elder branches.
An advice from the
superstition section: "Thursday evening after sunset, cut nail-pieces
from hands and feet, rub them in a cloth from the patient's shirt and
put them in a quill pen , which is stuck the same evening in a one year elder
shot ,which is stuck into the earth where three field-borders meet,
while saying the words: "Now my gout is buried and dead like God's son
was buried without pain - (he crosses himself three times) - Amen!" This is a
story from the town Kolding, Jutland.
A child with
rakitis must stand in a digged hole under an elder while a wise woman
treats him, some of the out-digged soil is poured over his head.
(Bakkebølle,Zealand).Or the child's clothes were put into the hole and milch
from a darkred cow. poured over it. Next morning the child had to put
on the clothes.
An often mentioned advice against toothache was to cut the tooth into
blood with a splint of elder and put the splint back under the bark.
If the bark and the wood grew together the toothache would disappear,
but it all had to happen in secrecy.
An elder in a wise wife's garden
was still in the garden long after her death. No one dared to remove it
in fear of getting a toothache or some other disease
Bark of elder and 8 other trees put on snaps, which is being hid under the elder-roots - but also been drunk.
The Elder people
In the old days people believed that hyldefolk
(the elder-people) lived at the foot of the elder bush. They called out
for people in moonlit summer nights, and if you went to sleep under the
elder, you would be "elder-shot", spellbound and mad. People also
thought that the strong aroma of the elder could scare away trolls and
other evil creatures. It was said that the goddess Freja lived in the
elderberry bush; she protected people from evil, therefore it was
necessary to care take care of the elder bush; if you cut down the
elder outside your house without planting a new one, then all kinds of
misfortune would hit you
People might get sick by felling an old elder which might grow upon the home of the underearth people (1798)
As far as the shadows of the elder reach is the home of the unearthly.
were seen small pixies under an elder tree at Femø island in
1860. The elder wife lived in giant hills or under the elder trees.The
elder people spread sand and swept nicely around the elder tree in the
garden by Ørslevkloster in North Jutland.
By an old elder the horses became frightened in the evening. In this place the Black Wife was seen.
People had great respect for an elder bush by a house near Roskilde:
Strange sounds were heard from it and two creatures were seen nearby.
sorcerer said: As long as the elder gives shadow to the bedchamber
window there will not be born disfigured children in the house.
It was said that one could learn to do magic under an elder tree.
Elder Mother /Hyldemor
In a German story from 1691 about heathen religion a priest from
Åbenrå(Jutland) told that he in his younger days (ab. 1670) often had
seen people kneel and bare their heads and say a prayer with folded
hands by the elder tree. They wanted to be allowed to fell "Madame
Elder" and said: "Give me some of your wood, then I shall give you some
of it back when it grows in the forest".
precaution is known from many later records: People must not make
furniture or tools from the elder, the elder was Elder Mother's
property. Before it was removed they had to promise to plant a new
elder, and what had not been used from the elder had to be digged down
under the new elder in order to reconcile it.
an elder people could be hit by the elder people ("elder shot", 1700)
People said: " He has been under an elder" = he was mad or intoxicated. .
The peasants dared not cut the elder until they had asked for
permission and then they spit three times as if they would drive away
the evil trolls (1772).
warm moonlit nights the spirit of the elder people cries on people and
they must not answer for then the spirit would get power over them.
1757 it was told that people planted elder everywhere. This was a kind
of heathen ancient rest of a religion. The almue worshipped the goddess
Hikti (still in 1819). The Elder Mother is mentioned, she took revenge
of all damage. It was told about a man who suddenly died that he had
felled an elder. This was still a talk among people in Nyboder (
Copenhagen) in 1940.
In Denmark elder is named hyld, and the goddess Freja was later known as hyldemor.
H.C. Andersen wrote a lovely fairy tale "Hyldemor": (The Elder Tree Mother)
Summer Elder (Sambucus ebulus)
young speciman of the common elder must not be mistaken for the close
related summer elder which differs by having heavy, cringing rootstocks
and almost white or light reddish flowers. Summer elder is also an old
medicinal plant with healing qualities, but it requires accurate dosing
in order to avoid poisonings. It is therefore not recommended for use.
text and photo: grethe bachmann