Monday, June 05, 2006
My timing couldn’t be better. I went to a work party for my P-Patch garden and was asked to get rid of some cuttings of overgrown plants. One was a delicious smelling flower, with tiny white umbels, that came off a tree overhanging the fence. The flowers smell as sweet as white grape juice. I brought it home, stuck it in a vase, and then looked it up and discovered they are elder blossoms.
Then I looked at the French Republican Calendar for Prairial 17 and discovered the plant of the day is Sureau (Elder Tree). You can convert the Gregorian calendar to the French Republican Calendar and vice versa at this web site: http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/calendar/
Unfortunately, after searching on the web and in my plant books for some time for pictures of elders, I am not at all sure that the flowers in a vase on my desk are elder. In fact, I have no idea what they are so I probably won’t try making a tea out of them. But I’ll write about elder anyway as it’s one of those plants rich with folklore.
Ellen Evert Hopman in her book, Tree Medicine, Tree Magic, writes that she experiences the spirit of the tree as having the energy of the Great Mother. It is an herb of Venus. For centuries, women have washed their face in the dew of elderberry blossoms for beauty. And Elderflower Water was commonly used by women to keep their skin soft and white.
According to Hopman, the Germans and Scandinavians believe in a potent spirit known as Hylde-moer or Elder-Mother who lives in elder trees. Hopman says you must ask permission before cutting an Elder tree, explain why you need the wood and give the spirit time to vacate. She also says that Elder grants even the smallest wish.
The Elder tree is also a tree of protection. Put it over your door to ward off negative energy. Plant it near your home to keep away evil. Elder worn and used as a decoration at handfastings and weddings brings prosperity and luck. And Hopman recommends using Elder Flower water at a child’s blessing. Yet as the Rodale Encyclopedia of Herbs relates, no carpenter would make a cradle of elderwood for fear of bringing harm to the baby. In the Herbal Tarot, Elder is the card of Death, perhaps because it is the last tree in the Celtic tree year.
The elder seems to be associated with the German goddess Holde (or perhaps it's just a confusion of name). But I find it interesting that elder flowers are often baked into pancakes and fritters. Pancakes were a common offering for Frau Holde's twin sister, Perchta, and both of them were said to lead the Wild Horde, which flew through the night sky. They were goddesses of abundance as well as death.
Harold Stephen Buhner, whose writing on the medicinal and spiritual aspects of plants I love, describes how the Kwakiutl use elder root to induce vomiting when a woman is ill and needs to get rid of what is causing her illness. Her husband gets his digging stick and goes and sits in front of an Elder tree and says,
O, Supernatural One, you who are not ordinary, I come to pray to you that you go, please, and make vomit my poor wife that she may vomit the cause which makes her feel qualmish all the time, you, Merciful-One, that you, please make come out the cause of it, Supernatural One.
Then he digs the root and cuts off a length the equal of four fingers and the thickness of one finger. At home yhe pours water into a small dish and washes the dirt from the roots. He pours out the dirty water and puts fresh water into the dish and takes a rough stone, puts it in the dish and rubs the wet roots on it. When the water becomes milky he stops and pours the medicine into a cup to give to his wife. She says a prayer before drinking it, that goes like this:
The-One-Asked-to-heal, Supernatural-One, you have come to take pity on me, you who have the name Healing-Woman, you who have the name Life-Bringer. Please, press out this which causes my qualmishness that I, please, may vomit, please, Supernatural One.
My favorite web site for herbal information has a comprehensive explanation of the history and uses of elder derived from the work of Maud Grieve:
My favorite Schnapps-making site has a recipe for Elderberry Schnapps:
The illustrations come from this website:
Buhner, Stephen Harrod, Sacred Plant Medicine, Roberts Rinehart 1996
Hopman, Ellen Evert, Tree Medicine, Tree Magic, Phoenix Publishing 1991
Murray, Liz and Colin, The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination, illustrated by Vanessa Card, St Martin’s 1988
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, 1987
Tierra, Michael, The Herbal Tarot, illustrations by Candis Cantin, Us Games 1988