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David Watson Hood, visual artist.
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Elder: Sambucus nigra L. , Bour-tree, Boon-tree, Bore tree, Borral, Boun-tree, Bountry, Boortrie, Bower-Tree, Bootrie, Bountree, Bountrie, Buttery Wood Tree, Black Elder, European Elder, Eller, Droman, Dromanach, Ruis, Alhuren, Battree, Devil's Eye, Eldrum, Ellhorn, Fau Holle, Hollunder, Hylantree, Hylder, Lady Ellhorn, Old Gal, Old Lady, Pipe Tree, Sureau (French), Sweet Elder, Tree of Doom, Yakori bengeskro (Romanes=Devil's Eye), (N.B. in Scots the word Eller is also often the Alder, Alnus glutinosa and the word Elleree, n. means a person of preternatural insight; a seer).


elder flower
So revered was the bour tree, that on no Biblical authority whatsoever those who disapproved, of this reverence accused it both of being the tree from which the cross was made and the tree on which Judas hung himself.

"Bour tree, bour tree, crookit rung, Never straight and never strong, Ever bush and never tree, Since our Lord was nailed t' y'e."

The propaganda did not work, it was just too useful. The plant has been called "the medicine chest of country people"; it has also been almost an entire chemists shop with a cosmetics section, insect repellents, dyes for hair and clothes as well as drinks, snacks and some handy hardware thrown in.

Mistress Jean was makin' the elderflower wine;
"An' what brings the laird at sic a like time?"
She put aff her apron, and on her silk gown,
Her mutch wi' red ribbons, and gaed awa' down.

Verse 5 From 'The Laird o' Cockpen' by Carolina Oliphant, (Lady Nairne), 1766-1845

In 1978 I moved to Overhill, in a Buchan that was then almost treeless, apart from spruce plantations and the Laird's policies, but on my croft, as on most old crofts, Elders alone had been allowed to survive around the kail-yard and midden. Last summer one of the oldest died and I cut it back to the stump in the hope of regeneration, someone else having done the same over 100 years before. The original plant must have been well grown by the day of Culloden.

The folklore surrounding the Elder is understandably vast, several whole books exist on the subject. The tree is conceived of as its dryad Hylde-Moer, the Elder-tree Mother, who lives in the tree and watches over it. The living wood should never be cut without her permission, or more accurately making a reciprocal contract with her. Various verses exist throughout Europe to do this e.g.:

"Boortrie mither gie me wood o' thee,
As I sall gie thee wood o' me
When in the wood then I am tree"

Even with this permission it is not on any account to be used as any part of a cradle (Hylde-Moer may upset the infant) nor is it to be burned.

I admit to recently burning a lot of dead Elder and it burns well on a closed stove, but it is somewhat explosive, which I think is in part the origin of the existence of the proscription. On an open hearth or camp-fire it could be disastrous. To the Roma it is the tree that can restore the sight of the blind (a little optimistic) and also never to be burned or harmed.

It also in the folk consciousness associated with death and control of the spirits of the dead or malevolent spirits. Its planting on boundaries for protective purposes may be the origin of the name Boun-tree however this is a late form of the name most of the Scots names are thought most likely to derive from bore/boor, to pierce. Some drivers of hearses would use whip handles of the wood to prevent their potentially malevolent passengers from spooking the horses. It was also used on graves but whether the intention was to keep the residents in, non-residents out or a bit of both is a matter for conjecture.

Non-medical uses of elder
The leaves and stems are to a degree toxic containing cyanogenic glycosides. Fruit – raw or cooked (some authorities say raw fruit induces nausea in quantity- what doesn't). The flavour of the raw fruit is not acceptable to everyone's taste, though when cooked it makes delicious jams, preserves, pies and etc. It can be used fresh or dried, the dried fruit being less bitter. The fruit is used to add flavour and colour to preserves, jams, pies, sauces, chutneys etc, it is also often used to make wine potentially the best of home made (non-grape) reds. Fruit also an ingredient in 'Ebulum' elderberry black ale. Flowers - raw or cooked. They can also be dried for later use. The flowers are crisp and somewhat juicy, they have an incredible aromatic smell and flavour and are delicious raw as a refreshing snack on a summers day (some authorities say they should not be eaten raw on account of toxicity but I feel fine after many years of doing so). Can be dipped in batter and deep fried to make fritters. The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (they combine especially well with gooseberries). They are also often used to make a sparkling wine (make sure bottles and closures are up to the secondary ferment as exploding bottles are scary) non alcoholic cordials are also made. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers. The leaves are used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats (this is questionable owing to their toxicity, see below for the powerful pharmacological actions of the leaves).

The living plant is a valuable adjunct to the compost heap, as the roots of the plant improve fermentation of the compost heap when growing nearby. The leaves are used as an insect repellent, very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance, (a little like cats' urine but nothing is worse than a full on midge attack). They can be powdered and placed amongst plants to act as a deterrent, or made into a spray when they act as an insecticide. This is prepared by boiling 3 - 4 handfuls of leaves in a litre of water, then straining and allowing to cool before applying. Effective against many insects, it also treats various fungal infections such as leaf rot and powdery mildew. The dried flowering shoots are used to repel insects, rodents etc. The flowers are used in skin lotions, oils and ointments. Tolerant of salt-laden gales, this species can be grown as a shelter hedge in exposed maritime areas. A dye is obtained from the fruit and the bark. The bark of older branches and the root have been used as an ingredient in dyeing black. A green dye is obtained from the leaves when alum is used as a mordant. The berries yield various shades of blue and purple dyes. They have also been used as a hair dye, turning the hair black. The blue colouring matter from the fruit can be used as a litmus to test if something is acid or alkaline. It turns green in an alkaline solution and red in an acid solution. The pith in the stems of young branches pushes out easily and the hollow stems thus made have been long been used as 'pluffs or puffs' pipes for blowing air into a fire, the Anglo-Saxon Æld meaning 'fire' gives us many of the tree's names as a result. Also once much used for pea-shooters (B.B. before biros). They can also be made into whistles and parts of other musical instruments. The soft pith of the wood is used for mounting microscope slides and also for treating burns and scalds. The mature wood is white and fine-grained. It is easily cut and polishes well. Valued highly by carpenters, it has many uses, for making skewers, mathematical instruments, toys etc. In the days of pre-industrial mechanisation its close grain and hardness made it useful for small machine parts like mill gears/cogs etc especially where box wood was unobtainable.

Medicinal uses of elder
Antiinflammatory, Aperient, Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Emetic, Emollient, Expectorant, Galactogogue, Haemostatic, Laxative, Ophthalmic, Purgative, Salve, Stimulant.
Definitons of medical actions

Elder has a very long history of household use as a medicinal herb and is also much used by herbalists. The flowers are the main part used in modern herbalism, though all parts of the plant have been used at times. Stimulant. The inner bark is collected from young trees in the autumn and is best sun-dried. It is diuretic, a strong purgative and in large doses emetic. It is used in the treatment of constipation and arthritic conditions. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark. The leaves can be used either fresh or dry. For drying, they are harvested in fine weather during June and July. The leaves are purgative, but are more nauseous than the bark. They are also diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic. The juice is said to be a good treatment for inflamed eyes. An ointment made from the leaves is emollient and is used in the treatment of bruises, sprains, chilblains, wounds etc. The fresh flowers are used in the distillation of 'Elder Flower Water'. The flowers can be preserved with salt to make them available for distillation later in the season. The water is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions. The dried flowers are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, galactogogue and pectoral. An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes. The infusion is also a very good spring tonic and blood cleanser. Externally, the flowers are used in poultices to ease pain and abate inflammation. Used as an ointment, it treats chilblains, burns, wounds, scalds etc. The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhoea. The fruit is widely used for making wines, preserves etc., and these are said to retain the medicinal properties of the fruit. The pith of young stems is used in treating burns and scalds. The root is no longer used in herbal medicine but it formerly had a high reputation as an emetic and purgative that was very effective against dropsy. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of young branches. It relieves asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup in children.

Sources:
Plants For A Future, www.pfaf.org/index.html,
Flora Celtica, www.floraceltica.com/, Flora Celtica is an international project based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, documenting and promoting the knowledge and sustainable use of native plants in the Celtic countries and regions of Europe.
Mrs. M. Grieve, "A Modern Herbal" 1931 (was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900's), online at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html
Dictionary of the Scots Language, http://www.dsl.ac.uk/

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