The Tree-Mother has been thought to inhabit the elder bush; and it has been long believed that refuge may be safely taken under an Elder tree in a thunderstorm, because the cross was made therefrom, and so the lightning never strikes it. Elder was formerly buried with a corpse to protect it from witches, and even now at a funeral the driver of the hearse commonly has his whip handle made of Elder wood. A cross made of the wood if affixed to cow-houses and stables was supposed to protect cattle from all possible harm.
"'Arn,' or the common Elder," says Gerard, "groweth everywhere; and it is planted about cony burrows, for the shadow of the conies." Formerly it was much cultivated near our English cottages, because supposed to afford protection against witches. Hence it is that the Elder tree may be so often seen immediately near old village houses. It acquired its name from the Saxon word eller or kindler, because its hollow branches were made into tubes to blow through for brightening up a dull fire. By the Greeks it was called Aktee. The botanical name of the Elder is Sambucus nigra, from sambukee, a sackbut, because the young branches, with their pith removed, were brought into requisition for making the pipes of this, and other musical instruments.
It was probably introduced as a medicinal plant at the time of the Monasteries. The adjective term nigra refers to the colour of the berries. These are without odour, rather acid, and sweetish to the taste. The French put layers of the flowers among apples, to which they impart, an agreeable odour and flavour like muscatel. A tract on Elder and Juniper Berries, showing how useful they may be in our Coffee Houses, is published with the Natural History of Coffee, 1682. Elder flowers are fatal to turkeys.
Hippocrates gave the bark as a purgative; and from his time the whole tree has possessed a medicinal celebrity, whilst its fame in the hands of the herbalist is immemorial. German writers have declared it contains within itself a magazine of physic, and a complete chest of medicaments.
The leaves when bruised, if worn in the hat, or rubbed on the face, will prevent flies from settling on the person. Likewise turnips, cabbages, fruit trees, or corn, if whipped with the branches and green leaves of Elder, will gain an immunity from all depredations of blight; but moths are fond of the blossom.
Dried Elder flowers have a dull yellow colour, being  shrivelled, and possessing a sweet faint smell, unlike the repulsive odour of the fresh leaves and bark. They have a somewhat bitter, gummy taste, and are sold in entire cymes, with the stalks. An open space now seen in Malvern Chase was formerly called Eldersfield, from the abundance of Elder trees which grew there. "The flowers were noted," says Mr. Symonds, "for eye ointments, and the berries for honey rob and black pigments. Mary of Eldersfield, the daughter of Bolingbroke, was famous for her knowledge of herb pharmacy, and for the efficacy of her nostrums."
Chemically the flowers contain a yellow, odorous, buttery oil, with tannin, and malates of potash and lime, whilst the berries furnish viburnic acid. On expression they yield a fine purple juice, which proves a useful laxative, and a resolvent in recent colds. Anointed on the hair they make it black.
A medicinal tincture is made from the fresh inner bark of the young branches. This, when given in toxical quantities, will induce profuse sweating, and will cause asthmatic symptoms to present themselves. When used in a diluted form it is highly beneficial for relieving the same symptoms, if they come on as an attack of illness, particularly for the spurious croup of children, which wakes them at night with a suffocative cough and wheezing. A dose of four or five drops, if given at once, and perhaps repeated in fifteen minutes, will straightway prove of singular service.
Sir Thomas Browne said that in his day the Elder had become a famous medicine for quinsies, sore throats, and strangulations.
The inspissated juice or "rob" extracted from the crushed berries, and simmered with white sugar, is cordial, aperient, and diuretic. This has long been a popular English remedy, taken hot at bed-time, when a cold is caught. One or two tablespoonfuls are mixed with a tumblerful of very hot water. It promotes perspiration, and is demulcent to the chest. Five pounds of the fresh berries are to be used with one pound of loaf sugar, and the juice should be evaporated to the thickness of honey.
"The recent rob of the Elder spread thick upon a slice of bread and eaten before other dishes," says Dr. Blochwich, 1760, "is our wives' domestic medicine, which they use likewise in their infants and children whose bellies are stop't longer than ordinary; for this juice is most pleasant and familiar to children; or to loosen the belly drink a draught of the wine at your breakfast, or use the conserve of the buds."
Also a capital wine, which may well pass for Frontignac, is commonly made from the fresh berries, with raisins, sugar, and spices. When well brewed, and three years' old, it constitutes English port. "A cup of mulled Elder wine, served with nutmeg and sippets of toast, just before going to bed on a cold wintry night, is a thing," as Cobbet said, "to be run for." The juice of Elder root, if taken in a dose of one or two tablespoonfuls when fasting, acts as a strong aperient, being "the most excellent purger of watery humours in the world, and very singular against dropsy, if taken once in the week."
John Evelyn, in his Sylva (1729), said of the Elder: "If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries, were fully known, I cannot tell what our countrymen could ail, for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or wounds." "The buds boiled in water gruel have effected wonders in a fever," "and an extract composed of the berries greatly assists longevity. Indeed,"—so famous is the story of Neander— "this is a catholicum against all infirmities whatever." "The leaves, though somewhat rank of smell, are otherwise, as indeed is the entire shrub, of a very sovereign virtue. The springbuds are excellently wholesome in pottage; and small ale, in which Elder flowers have been infused, are esteemed by many so salubrious, that this is to be had in most of the eating houses about our town."
"It were likewise profitable for the scabby if they made a sallet of those young buds, who in the beginning of the spring doe bud forth together with those outbreakings and pustules of the skin, which by the singular favour of nature is contemporaneous; these being sometimes macerated a little in hot water, together with oyle, salt, and vinegar, and sometimes eaten. It purgeth the belly, and freeth the blood from salt and serous humours" (1760). Further, "there be nothing more excellent to ease the pains of the haemorrhoids than a fomentation made of the flowers of the Elder and Verbusie, or Honeysuckle, in water or milk, for in a short time it easeth the greatest pain."
If the green leaves are warmed between two hot tiles, and applied to the forehead, they will promptly relieve nervous headache. In Germany the Elder is regarded with much respect. From its leaves a fever drink is made; from its berries a sour preserve, and a wonder-working electuary; whilst the moon-shaped clusters of its aromatic flowers, being somewhat narcotic, are of service in baking small cakes.
The Romans made use of the black Elder juice as a hair dye. From the flowers a fragrant water is now distilled as a perfume; and a gently stimulating ointment is prepared with lard for dressing burns and scalds. Another ointment, concocted from the green berries, with camphor and lard, is ordered by the London College as curative of piles.
"The leaves of Elder boiled soft, and with a little linseed oil added thereto, if then laid upon a piece of scarlet or red cloth, and applied to piles as hot as this can be suffered, being removed when cold, and replaced by one such cloth after another upon the diseased part by the space of an hour, and in the end some bound to the place, and the patient put warm to bed. This hath not yet failed at the first dressing to cure the disease, but if the patient be dressed twice, it must needs cure them if the first fail."
The Elder was named Eldrun and Burtre by the Anglo-Saxons. It is now called Bourtree in Scotland, from the central pith in the younger branches which children bore out so as to make pop guns:—
"Bour tree—Bour tree: crooked rung,
The Elder is specially abundant in Kent around Folkestone. By the
This is the tree upon which the legend represents Judas as having hanged himself, or of which the cross was made at the crucifixion. In Pier's Plowman's Vision it is said:—
"Judas he japed with Jewen silver,
Gerard says "the gelly of the Elder, otherwise called Jew's ear, taketh away inflammations of the mouth and throat if they be washed therewith, and doth in like Manner help the uvula." He refers here to a fungus which grows often from the trunk of the Elder, and the shape of which resembles the human ear. Alluding to this fungus, and to the supposed fact that the berries of the Elder are poisonous to peacocks, a quaint old rhyme runs thus:—
"For the coughe take Judas' eare,
"Three syppes for the hycocke,
Various superstitions have attached themselves in England to the Elder bush. The Tree-Mother has been thought to inhabit the elder bush; and it has been long believed that refuge may be safely taken under an Elder tree in a thunderstorm, because the cross was made therefrom, and so the lightning never strikes it. Elder was formerly buried with a corpse to protect it from witches, and even now at a funeral the driver of the hearse commonly has his whip handle made of Elder wood. Lord Bacon commended the rubbing of warts with a green Elder stick, and then burying the stick to rot in the mud. Brand says it is thought in some parts that beating with an Elder rod will check the growth of boys. A cross made of the wood if affixed to cow-houses and stables was supposed to protect cattle from all possible harm.
Belonging to the order of Caprifoliaceous (with leaves eaten by goats) plants, the Elder bush grows to the size of a small tree, bearing many white flowers in large flat umbels at the ends of the branches. It gives off an unpleasant soporific smell, which is said to prove harmful to those that sleep under its shade. Our summer is  not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and it ends when the berries are ripe. When taken together with the berries of Herb Paris (four-leaved Paris) they have been found very useful in epilepsy. "Mark by the way," says Anatomie of the Elder (1760), "the berries of Herb Paris, called by some Bear, or Wolfe Grapes, is held by certain matrons as a great secret against epilepsie; and they give them ever in an unequal number, as three, five, seven, or nine, in the water of Linden tree flowers. Others also do hang a cross made of the Elder and Sallow, mutually inwrapping one another, about the children's neck as anti-epileptick." "I learned the certainty of this experiment (Dr. Blochwich) from a friend in Leipsick, who no sooner erred in diet but he was seized on by this disease; yet after he used the Elder wood as an amulet cut into little pieces, and sewn in a knot against him, he was free." Sheep suffering from the foot-rot, if able to get at the bark and young shoots of an Elder tree, will thereby cure themselves of this affection. The great Boerhaave always took off his hat when passing an Elder bush. Douglas Jerrold once, at a well-known tavern, ordered a bottle of port wine, which should be "old, but not Elder."
The Dwarf Elder (Sambucus ebulus) is quite a different shrub, which grows not infrequently in hedges and bushy places, with a herbaceous stem from two to three feet high. It possesses a smell which is less aromatic than that of the true Elder, and it seldom brings its fruit to ripeness. A rob made therefrom is actively purgative; one tablespoonful for a dose. The root, which has a nauseous bitter taste, was formerly used in dropsies. A decoction made from it, as well as from the inner bark, purges, and promotes free urination.
The leaves made into a poultice will resolve swellings and relieve contusions. The odour of the green leaves will drive away mice from granaries. To the Dwarf Elder have been given the names Danewort, Danesweed, and Danesblood, probably because it brings about a loss of blood called the "Danes," or perhaps as a corruption of its stated use contra quotidianam. The plant is also known as Walewort, from wal—slanghter. It grows in great plenty about Slaughterford, Wilts, where there was a noted fight with the Danes; and a patch of it thrives on ground in Worcestershire, where the first blood was drawn in the civil war between the Parliament and the Royalists. Rumour says it will only prosper where blood has been shed either in battle, or in murder.