What is Elderberry? (Sambucus nigra)
There are several interesting tales ingrained in botanical history that center on the wood of this small tree. For one thing, the mature timber is reputed to be quite sturdy, which may be why Judas allegedly chose an elder branch to hang from in the hope of attaining absolution for his betrayal. Apparently, this event later provided the inspiration for coming up with the moniker “Judas’ ear fungus,” the name given to a mushroom that prefers to reside in dead elder wood. It’s also said that the Cross of Calvary was carved from elder, as this old rhyme suggests:
“Bour tree-Bour tree: crooked rong Never straight and never strong; Ever bush and never tree Since our Lord was nailed on thee.”
The soft pitch of young elder branches can be easily removed, leaving behind a thin tube or pipe. It’s a foregone conclusion that this was once a popular pastime for young lads since Culpepper once wrote, “It is needless to write any description of this [tree], since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the Elder.” It is speculated that these handmade popguns were the forerunners of toy whistles and various musical instruments still popular with children today. It is a known fact, however, that the dried pith of elder was traditionally used to make shoemaker’s pegs, pins for fish netting, and to fashion carpenters’ rules. It is still used by master watchmakers today to clean tools before using them on small watch parts.
Elder (Sambucus nigra), also known as Common or Black Elder, is a flowering shrub that shares its family tree with about 30 cousins that belong to the Adoxaceae family. However, for many years, elder was listed as a member of the Caprifoliaceae family, most likely because its flowers bear a striking resemblance to those of honeysuckle.This native of Europe and North America shares another common characteristic with its true relatives— they all produce berries that range in color from deep violet or red to bluish-black. An important distinction to be made between them, though, is the fact that many species produce poisonous berries. So, a bit of Herbal Know-How: When speaking of elder berries, or what we commonly refer to simply as elderberry, we’re speaking of Sambucus nigra, exclusively. [Note: The flowers, which are also edible, are obtained solely from Sambucus canadensis.]
The wood is also revered for its mystical powers. In fact, although it was once used to ward off “evil” witches, it is a preferred wood to fashion wands from by modern Pagans and Wiccans today. However, a word of warning: According to Dutch folklore, elder is home to Hylde-Moer, or the Elder Mother. As such, cutting down an elder tree without first obtaining permission from its guardian would invoke spiritual possession of the offending woodsman, as well as any object made from the wood. Therefore, it might be prudent to recite the following ancient chant before making a strike:
“Old girl, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree.”
Like many other berries and fruits, elderberry has earned a reputation for lending its tart flavor to many culinary dishes. The berries can be baked in pies and tarts, or rendered into jams, jellies, preserves, and even ketchup. Of course, every country dweller has sampled elderberry wine at some point.