The Elder Tree (Sambucus nigra) was used by Druids to both bless and curse. It was associated with the fairies and a sprig of Elder pinned above the door protected the homestead from fairies. Fairies (and evil spirits) could also be driven away with wands made from Elder or musical instruments made of elder could be played to displace spirits. Many solitary Elder trees were considered haunted in Ireland. In Irish, Elder is ‘Ruis’ and is given the ogham letter ‘R’ .
Other names for Elder include elderberry, black elder, European elder, European elderberry and European black elderberry. The tree produces bunches of white flowers in the summer and black berries in the Autumn.
The Druid month of Elder runs from November 25th to December 23rd. It is considered a tree of both death and rebirth and is associated with the Winter Solstice.That its cut branches regrow lent itself to this association. It was also a tree of judgement. Druids would often dispense justice beneath its branches. It is considered a female tree.
An elder fire was considered sacred and few would cut the branches without asking permission of the ‘Elder Lady’ first. As time went on, the tree was associated with witches during the dark ages and further went on to become the ‘Devils tree’. In Christianity, it is thought that the traitor Judas hung himself from an elder tree thus cementing its reputation as a tree of misfortune. ‘Judas Ear’ fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae) is particularly common on Elder trees. St. Patrick is said to have used a rod (wand?!) of elder to drive the snakes out of Ireland.
Elder rarely grows taller than a large bush of 25-30 feet, being too weak to grow further. It’s hollow stems make good timber for music instruments. Its weakness could also have contributed to its reputation for being a wood that would invite evil into the home if used to build furniture – the wood would buckle and warp, a feature reinforced by its structural weakness.
The berries, cooked, have been used to make jams, syrups and jellies. The primary use of Elder has been medicinal. The bark, root, leaves and fruits have all been used to treat ailments such as bronchitis, cough, upper respiratory cold infections and fever.
The flowers can be placed in hot water and left to infuse for a few minutes to treat congestion and as an expectorant.
The leaves emit a pungent smell and were traditionally tied to horses manes to ward off flies. Even today, cattle will often seek shelter by an Elder, the tree being relatively free of flies!
In the Druid zodiac, New Moon Elders are more outspoken than Full Moon Elders and will be convincing and entertaining speakers. Those born under the Elder Moon will acquire success gradually, their early years spent flitting from project to project. They are freedom loving individuals who find it hard to settle with one person early in life.
As great orators, they are often outspoken and will offer opinion easily. Despite their outgoing and outspoken nature, those of the Elder Moon are deeply spiritual though they may not appear so at first. Associated with the Winter Solstice, they have an innate familiarity with death and rebirth and the continuity of life in a magical sense. They are naturally psychic often understanding the life lessons people go through before anybody else has grasped the concept.