The well-known Elder tree, common to every hedge in England, is one of the most magical plants in the hedge-witches repertoire. Old names like Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree, and the German word Holunder or Hylde Moer, as she was known in Denmark, all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess to whom the Elder-tree was sacred, in times gone by. Elder was thought to be inhabited by a tree-dryad, which embodied its soul. The dryad could be kind or fierce, depending on how it was treated. Those who respected the Elder tree and never cut its branches were protected and blessed, but woe to those who dared to lay an axe on the sacred wood. The only good reason to pick at any part of the Elder tree was for medicine, if one solemnly explained one’s purpose and asked permission from the tree. Elder indeed has truly amazing medicinal powers, so much so that some people have termed them ‘a poor person’s medicine chest’, as a little book published in 1644 testifies, which was entirely dedicated to the virtues of Elder. The author praises the Elder-tree in no less than 230 pages. The booklet became so popular that it ran through several editions in both, the English and the Latin version. Every single part of the plant was mentioned as medicinally useful. Reference is even made to an edible fungus known as ‘Judas Ear’, which often appears on Elders that grow in damp and shady places. Accordingly, its medicinal powers were deemed effective for treating quinsy, sore throats and strangulation. (Judas was thought to have hanged himself from an Elder tree, which is why Elder never since could grow into a tall, upright tree.) The various parts of the Elder tree itself were deemed effective for practically any ailment, ‘from toothache to the plague’.
Although still considered a valuable item in the herbal medicine chest, Elder does not quite enjoy the eminent status it once held. In the past not only the flowers, but leaves and inner bark were used extensively. Today the flowers are the only part that is still commonly used in contemporary herbal medicine. They have a long-standing reputation as a treatment for all kinds of inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever. An infusion can be made to treat coughs, colds and flu, asthma and hay-fever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce fevers and thus it has often proven useful in cases of measles, scarlet fever and other infections. Externally an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing bath that soothes irritable nerves and relieves itchy skin. A cool infusion can be used as an eye-wash for sore or inflamed eyes. Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with flowers, briefly dipped in hot water and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.
Elder is a very magical tree and sacred to the Great Goddess, who presides over the mysteries of life, death and rebirth. As such, the Elder tree symbolises fertility and rejuvenation as well as the realm of magic and healing. It is a tree of protection, and twigs of it were often pinned over the doors to ward off evil spirits. It was grown near the house to benefit from its healing and protective powers and to protect the farm against lightening flashes. But above all, Elder trees are linked to the realm of the fairies and it was said that one might see their procession passing by if one hid in an Elder grove on St. John’s night (drinking some Elder champagne)