Kohler’s Medicinal Plants – 1887
When the Elder tree blossoms, it perfumes the air with spring. My kids and I pass many such trees when we walk home from school, and we almost always stop to smell the small, unspectacular white flowers and let them tickle our senses with their powerful, almost-dizzying perfume. It’s no wonder that in Celtic culture the tree is closely associated to fragile faeries with magnificent power. According to myth, falling asleep under an Elder tree guarantees a meeting with faeries in your dreams and a woodwind instrument made out of Elder tree wood makes the music most pleasent to the ears of nature spirits.
The non-mystical powers of Elder tree are just as powerful and contradictary. The Elder tree is both a healing tree and a poisonous tree. Its roots, stems and leaves contain trace amounts of cianide, however, its flowers and berries have been used for centuries for its anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Or in other words, elderflowers or elderberries can be powerful allies in case of flu or cold. Sipping on elderflower herbal tea daily helps boost the immune system, which is especially useful when the temperature lowers and the sick-season kicks in. Elderflowers and elderberries also have a laxative effect on the body and are known to lower blood sugar levels. It should be noted, however, that only black elderberries (from the tree Sambucus Nigra) can be consumed and never raw, as they can cause nausea. And, more importantly, the Elder tree can easily be confused with Danewort (Sambucus Ebulus) which is toxic. The main difference between the two lies in their stems: Elder tree is a tree with wood and bark whereas Danewort is a plant. Of course as with all herbs and mushrooms gathered in the wild, when uncertain, best refrain.
In the end, I’d like to add that the Elder tree truly is a paradox. Such unassuming flowers, shy, black berries, and yet so much power that can both heal and harm. So it really came to no surprise when I stumbled on this description of the Elder tree while doing a bit of online research for this post: “Elder magic is the magic of juxtaposition, the place where opposites find synergistic expression. That place where opposites meet creates strength and presence that can seem illogical when viewed from strictly one perspective. Elder teaches us we must learn to embrace multiple perspectives if we are to master the threshold. While she is a shallow-rooted tree, she is sturdy and strong. While her canopy is airy and light, wide and often growing so low as to touch the ground, she provides effective shelter from the elements.” (cited from The Practical Herbalist)