By: Sasha Aparicio

The elderberry plant has been present in our culture and folklore for a good part of human history. It is fascinating to see how the widespread cultivation and versatile uses of the different parts of the elder plant have resulted in such a rich history of the plant.

Below, we present just a small snippet of some of the most interesting facts about elderberry history and folklore.

  1. Elderberry plants are native to Europe, Asia, and North America – they probably arrived there by retreating glaciers in 9000 B.C.E.1Grigson, G. (1959). A herbal of all sorts (pp. 25–26). London: Phoenix House.
  2. Elderberry seeds were found in dwellings from the Neolithic era in Switzerland, meaning that the plant was likely cultivated by about 2000 B.C.E.1Grigson, G. (1959). A herbal of all sorts (pp. 25–26). London: Phoenix House.
  3. The medicinal properties of elderberry and different parts of the elder bush or elder tree were well known by 77 C.E., as is evident in Pliny the Elder’s book Natural History
  4. In 1644, Martin Blochwitz wrote a book devoted to the medicinal uses of the elder plant called Anatomie of the Elder .3Blochwitz, M. (1644). Anatomie of the Elder. Digital versión: Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A28386.0001.001?view=toc
  5. Today, hundreds of studies have been devoted to understanding and documenting the nutritional and medicinal benefits of the elderberry.4The Herb Society of America (2013). Essential Facts for Elderberry. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/2084e920-b3bf-48da-8596-037fd76e46b7
  6. While the scientific name of the genus is Sambucus, the common name, “Elder” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld, meaning fire. This alludes to one of the uses of the elder plant, where the pith from the stem could be removed to reveal a hollow tube easily used to blow air into a fire.4The Herb Society of America (2013). Essential Facts for Elderberry. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/2084e920-b3bf-48da-8596-037fd76e46b7
  7. The leaves emit an unpleasant smell, and it is thought they act as insect repellent.4The Herb Society of America (2013). Essential Facts for Elderberry. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/2084e920-b3bf-48da-8596-037fd76e46b7
  8. Raw fruits can be poisonous, which is why they should only be consumed after being cooked.4The Herb Society of America (2013). Essential Facts for Elderberry. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/2084e920-b3bf-48da-8596-037fd76e46b7
  9. While the most well-known species of elderberry are S. nigra, S. canadensis, and S. americanus, there are several other varieties, including S. cerulea (Blue Elderberry), S. ebulus (European Dwarf Elderberry), and S. racemosa (Red Elderberry).4The Herb Society of America (2013). Essential Facts for Elderberry. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/2084e920-b3bf-48da-8596-037fd76e46b7
  10. Medical Doctor Nicholas Culpeper published the book The Complete Herbal in the mid-17th century to describe the uses of different herbs for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. He describes how elderflower water could help to soften the skin, lighten freckles, and soothe sunburn. The berries could also be made into a paste for dyeing the hair.5Nicholas, C. (1652). The Complete Herbal. Digital Version: The Survivor Library http://www.survivorlibrary.com/library/culpepers_complete_herbal_1880.pdf
  11. The wood, which is very fine-grained, could be used to make combs, skewers, pegs for shoemakers, needles, musical instruments, and even toys.4The Herb Society of America (2013). Essential Facts for Elderberry. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/2084e920-b3bf-48da-8596-037fd76e46b7
  12. The Coahuilla indigenous tribe of North America used the elderberries as dye, food and medicine. During the berry season,  Coahuilla families largely subsisted on these fruits, together with chia seeds6Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago.
  13. For the Miwok tribe of North America, the elder plant was known as Añata’iyo or a’ñtai. They were always eaten cooked, in significant quantities when they were in season, but also dried for winter consumption7Barret, S.A., Gifford, E.W. (1933). Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region. Yosemite Association.
  14. The Elder Mother is one of the most well-known pieces of elder tree folklore. The Elder Mother is a being that guards the elder tree and has its roots in English and Scandinavian Folklore. She is also known as the Old Lady or Old Girl in Lincolnshire, or Hyldemoer in the Netherlands.8Burne, C. (1914). Handbook of Folklore. Keissinger Publishing, LLC. Republished 2003. Retrieved from: https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Folklore-Charlotte-Sophia-Burne/dp/0766130584/ref=olp_product_details?_encoding=UTF8&me=
  15. In one Northern European tradition prominent in the Middle Ages, people planted the elder tree near their home as protection from evil spirits. It was believed that the Norse mother of the good fairies lived in the elder tree roots.9Leyel, Hilda; Hartley, Olga (2004). The Gentle Art of Cookery. Kegan Paul: Abingdon. https://books.google.com.gt/books?id=0NDFBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT201&lpg=PT201&dq=warding+off+witches+with+elderberry&source=bl&ots=ht-8xMgeor&sig=64Q4I9I958rS4-VM4p8DqM8DuU4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiM9MmNiazeAhXR_qQKHZgDAfE4ChDoATAJegQIABAB#v=onepage&q=warding%20off%20witches%20with%20elderberry&f=false
  16. According to European folklore, if you cut a part of the elder tree without chanting the proper phrase to the Elder Mother (“Old Gal, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine, when I grow into a tree”), evil may come your way.10Trevelyan, M. (1909). Folk-lore and folk-stories of Wales. Digitized by the University of Michigan. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/afl2317.0001.001.umich.edu/page/n5

Which was your favorite fact? Tell us in the comments below!

Image:

Figure from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen, titled, “Echter Holunder, Sambucus nigra”, 1796 at http://www.biolib.de.

1 Grigson, G. (1959). A herbal of all sorts (pp. 25–26). London: Phoenix House.
3 Blochwitz, M. (1644). Anatomie of the Elder. Digital versión: Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A28386.0001.001?view=toc
4 The Herb Society of America (2013). Essential Facts for Elderberry. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/2084e920-b3bf-48da-8596-037fd76e46b7
5 Nicholas, C. (1652). The Complete Herbal. Digital Version: The Survivor Library http://www.survivorlibrary.com/library/culpepers_complete_herbal_1880.pdf
6 Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago.
7 Barret, S.A., Gifford, E.W. (1933). Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region. Yosemite Association.
8 Burne, C. (1914). Handbook of Folklore. Keissinger Publishing, LLC. Republished 2003. Retrieved from: https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Folklore-Charlotte-Sophia-Burne/dp/0766130584/ref=olp_product_details?_encoding=UTF8&me=
9 Leyel, Hilda; Hartley, Olga (2004). The Gentle Art of Cookery. Kegan Paul: Abingdon. https://books.google.com.gt/books?id=0NDFBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT201&lpg=PT201&dq=warding+off+witches+with+elderberry&source=bl&ots=ht-8xMgeor&sig=64Q4I9I958rS4-VM4p8DqM8DuU4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiM9MmNiazeAhXR_qQKHZgDAfE4ChDoATAJegQIABAB#v=onepage&q=warding%20off%20witches%20with%20elderberry&f=false
10 Trevelyan, M. (1909). Folk-lore and folk-stories of Wales. Digitized by the University of Michigan. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/afl2317.0001.001.umich.edu/page/n5