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
"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
Mistress Jean was makin' the
"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
"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.
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.
Plants For A Future,
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
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/