Elder Tree
Many superstitions and legends are associated with the
elder tree and shrub (genus Sambucus). In some cultures, it is
identified with the tree on which Judas hanged himself as well
as with the wood used for the Cross. In some parts of Scotland
and Wales, it was believed that the dwarf elder grew only on
ground that had been soaked in blood. Elder was not used for
a child’s cradle because it could cause the child to pine or be
harried by fairies. In Germany it was considered unlucky to
bring an elder branch into a house, because it might also bring
ghosts, or, in England, the Devil himself.
However, elder was also believed to protect against evil, and
it was thought that wherever it grew witches were powerless. In
England gardens were sometimes protected by having elder
trees planted at the entrance, or in hedges around the garden.
In some parts of the United States, an elder stick was burned
on the fire at Christmas Eve to reveal witches, sorcerers, and
other evil wishers in the neighborhood. In the Tyrol, it was believed
that an elder stick cut on St. John’s Eve (June 23) would
detect witchcraft.
Many old gardens in Britain retained into the twentieth century
some of the protective elder trees. The folklorist James
Napier recalled
‘‘In my boyhood, I remember that my brothers, sisters, and
myself were warned against breaking a twig or branch from the
elder hedge which surrounded my grandfather’s garden. We
were told at the time as a reason for this prohibition, that it was
poisonous; but we discovered afterwards that there was another
reason, viz., that it was unlucky to break off even a small twig
from a bourtree bush [old name for elder].’’
In some parts of Europe, this superstition was so strong that
before pruning the elder, the gardener would say, ‘‘Elder, elder
may I cut thy branches’’ If no response was heard, it was considered
that permission had been given, and then, after spitting
three times, the pruner began his cutting. Another writer
claimed that elderwood formed a portion of the fuel used in
burning human bodies as protection against evil influences,
and drivers of funeral hearses had their whip handles made of
elder for a similar reason.
In some parts of Scotland, people would not put a piece of
elderwood into the fire. Napier observed one instance where
‘‘pieces of this wood were lying around unused when the neighbourhood
was in great straits for firewood; but none would use
it, and when asked why the answer was ‘We don’t know, but
folks say it is not lucky to burn the bourtree.’’’
Elderberries gathered on St. John’s Eve were believed to
ward off witchcraft and to bestow magic powers. If the elder was
planted in the form of a cross upon a new grave and it bloomed,
this was a sure sign that the soul of the dead person was happy.
Various magic powers against illness were claimed for elder.
In Massachusetts, elder pulp in a bag worn around the neck was
thought to cure rheumatism. Elsewhere elder was also used as
an amulet, small pieces being cut up and sewn into a knot and
hung around the neck or sewn in a knot in a piece of a man’s
shirt. Elder was also believed to be of medicinal value for deafness,
faintness, strangulation, sore throat, ravings, snake and
dog bites, insomnia, melancholy, and hypochondria

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