Seasonal Herbcrafting with Meadowlark: Herbal Allies for Winter

For me, Winter started one night in the first week of December, when I awoke to a bright flash of lightning, a loud crack of thunder, high speed winds howling through the branches of our front yard trees, and the loud staccato rapping of rain and hail on our dormer windows and rooftop.  The dogs began to bark, and I wondered if the children would wake, but they did not.  So I lay there, warm and dry, ensconced in my well warded home, snuggled in my comfortable bed...listening….both humbled and awed by the sheer power of the elements as they raged around me.  Of course, at my home in the California Bay Area, the elements are MUCH more forgiving than elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, on that blustery December night, I was reminded that even a Bay Area winter is a force to be reckoned with, and warrants some focused attention towards fortifying and protecting myself, my home, and my loved ones to be sure we're well equipped to “weather the storm” this winter.  Certainly a good check of the heating systems and structural integrity of the home, as well as proper nutrition, warm clothes and good sleep for the body is the best place to start (and those of us who have ready access to these things can count ourselves as blessed).  However, for extra protection and support during this cold and dark time of year, I will be calling on one of my favorite herbal allies, the magical Elder Tree.

The Elder Tree (Sambucus Nigra)

The Elder Tree is a large shrub or small tree native to Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, which is now commonly cultivated in North America.  The tree thrives in wet or dry soil, in sunny or partly shady locations, and can grow up to 30 feet tall. Elder is a deciduous tree that is covered in white, lacy, sweet smelling flowers in the spring and drooping bunches of small, juicy purplish-black berries in the fall.  The berries are a nutritious food for people and animals alike, and any berries remaining unpicked into the winter will dry on the branch to become an important winter staple for many species of birds and small mammals.  Both the berries and the flowers contain high levels of vitamins A, B, and C and several antioxidants that support the immune and respiratory systems.  Elder has been an important herb in folk medicine for hundreds of years and continues to be popular today, due to modern studies which demonstrate Her effectiveness in alleviating allergies, boosting overall respiratory health, fighting colds and flu, and other immune stimulating and health enhancing effects.

History and Folklore

The Name “Elder” (earlier known as “Eldrun” or Elhorn) is believed to be derived from the Anglo-saxon word “Aeld” (meaning fire), because it was the custom to use hollowed stems to fan a coal into a fire The origin of the Latin name “Sambucus” most likely stems from the name of a wind instrument called a “sackbut”.  This magical instrument was used to call forth magical spirits and was made from the hollowed stems of the Elder Tree.  Other common names for the tree are “Holler” and “Hylder”, which probably refers to an ancient Norse vegetation Goddess of life, death and rebirth, known as “Hylde Moer”.  In Denmark, it was believed that the Elder was sacred to and inhabited by an aspect of this Goddess, and that She protected and bestowed blessings on the people who cared for it (see http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheElderTreeMother_e.html for a lovely Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about the Elder Mother).  

This concept of the Elder being inhabited by a tree spirit or Dryad is not restricted to Denmark, and folklore regarding the harvesting of Elder wood is consistent across cultures and continents.  For instance, the Elder rules the 13th moon in the Ogham calendar and represents the Crone aspect of the triple Goddess (a wise old energy at the end of the year's cycle).  In Celtic lore, to show reverence for the Spirit within the tree, and allow time for Her to vacate before attempting to harvest Her wood, one would kneel, bare-headed, before the tree, and recite the following:

“Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I become a tree”.

It is said that if Elder wood was collected without proper respect, Elder spirits or the Elder Mother would follow and plague the wrongdoer until the error was rectified with the appropriate honors and sacrifices.  

Throughout history, many people, separated by thousands of miles have planted Elder in their gardens and near their homes and called on the Elder Mother for Her protective and healing powers, including:  

  • Safekeeping for children: Pregnant women would kiss the tree as good fortune for the coming baby: Elder was used to make cradles to keep babies safe (with the Tree’s permission of course.  Without it, it is said the baby would be pinched and pulled and get no rest until removed from the crib); Elderflower incense was burned and baby given a ritual bath of Elderflower water to invoke and honor the Elder Mother and bring her blessings.

  • Protection of Pets and Livestock: A grove or patch of Elder was treated as holy ground.  A growth, once established, was left open, so pets and livestock could walk through it at will and be blessed by the Elder Mother.

  • Blessings for Newlyweds: Elder used at weddings was believed to bring good luck to the couple, and Elder was carried to preserve against the temptation to commit adultery.

  • Protection for the Dead and Dying: One of the most sacred duties of the Elder Mother was to stand at the threshold of Life and Death and help transport the Dead into the Otherworld*.  Because of this, Elder wood was used in burial rites in British long barrows and to light the fires for cremation and/or to burn possessions after death; Green elder branches were buried in graves to protect the dead from evil spirits; and drivers of hearses carried whips made of Elder wood.

*Interestingly, this association with Death and dying was also consistent with some Christian traditions which believed that the Elder Tree provided the wood for the cross upon which Jesus was crucified and was the tree upon which Judas Iscariot was purported to have hung himself after his betrayal.

Winter Herbcrafting with Elder  

To strengthen immunity and protect The Body from winter colds and flus...

Winter is known as “cold and flu season” for a good reason.  According to the CDC, flu activity most commonly occurs between October and May, peaking between December and February.  Furthermore, recent animal research seems to show that after exposure to cold air, as internal body temperatures fall, so too does the immune system's ability to beat back the rhinovirus that causes the common cold.  Elderberry has been shown to be effective against the common cold and at least eight different strains of influenza, and seems to work by disarming the enzyme that the virus uses to penetrate healthy cells in the lining of the nose and throat.  If taken before an infection, Elder may prevent the infection from taking hold.  If taken after infection, She can help prevent the spread of the virus, particularly through the respiratory tract.  .

  1. Elderberry tincture: Fill a mason jar with fresh or dried Elderberries and cover with 100 proof alcohol of your choice (vodka and brandy both work well). Store in a cool dark place and shake daily for 1-2 months, then strain the liquid through a fine mesh or cheesecloth into a clean jar (being careful to squeeze out as much of the juicy goodness as possible) and compost the spent herbs. Keep the finished tincture in the jar or decant into smaller jars or dropper bottles.  Take 10-30 drops up to 3 times a day (e.g. for prevention 10 drops 1X per day, but 30 drops 3 X per day at first sign of onset).

  2. Elderberry syrup or cordial: In a non-reactive saucepan, combine 2 cups water, ½ cup dried elderberries (and, if desired,  1-2 cinnamon sticks, 2-3 slices fresh ginger and/or a few cloves), and bring to a boil.  Then make a decoction by reducing the heat and simmering on low, uncovered, for at least 20 minutes (but may be up to 2-4 hours), until liquid is reduced by about ½.  Strain the liquid through a fine mesh or cheesecloth into a clean jar (being careful to squeeze out as much of the juicy goodness as possible) and compost the spent herbs.  To make a cordial, add 1 part brandy to 1 part Elderberry decoction and shake gently, then add ¼ to ½ cup honey per 2 cups the elderberry/brandy mixture.  For a syrup, omit the alcohol and just add the ¼ to ½ cup honey per 2 cups of the elderberry decoction.  Keep the finished cordial in a cool dark place, syrup should be refrigerated.  Take 2-3 tsp up to 3 times per day (e.g. for prevention 2 tsp 1X per day, but 3tsp 3X per day at first sign of onset)..
  3. “Gypsy Fever Tea”: Elderflowers are diaphoretic, meaning they induce sweating to help break a fever.  To make a fever reducing tea, blend 1 part dried Elderflower, 1 part dried Peppermint, and 1 part dried Yarrow.  When fever strikes, prepare by adding 1 cup of boiling water to 1 TBS of the tea blend and steep, covered, for at least 10 minutes. Strain, sip warm and rest.  May be repeated every few hours, until fever has subsided.

To protect muscles and joints from the cold and ease rheumatic pain...

For many sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis, pain, inflammation and other common symptoms tend to worsen during the cold winter months. Elderflowers contain a compound called triterpenoids, which have pain relieving, anti-inflammatory effects and, in combination with other efforts, may help reduce these seasonal symptoms.

  1. “Pain Away” Tea and Bath: Blend equal parts dried elder flowers, yarrow, and lemon balm, with ½ part dried licorice.  To prepare, as a tea, add 1 cup boiling water and and 1-2 slices of ginger to 1 TBS herbal blend, and steep, covered, for at least 10 minutes.  Strain and drink warm 1-3 times per day, as needed.  To prepare as a bath, add 1-2 slices of ginger and ¼ to ½ cup herbal blend to a quart mason jar and fill with boiling water.  Steep, covered, for 10-20 minutes, strain and add to a hot bath (with or without ¼ to ½ cup Epsom or Sea salts).

To fortify, protect and bless the house and home and its inhabitants...

With the cold weather and long nights, Winter is a time when we tend to want to "hunker down" at home and a good opportunity to refresh and reinforce our wards and boundaries.  Elder is said to be one of the best magical herbs for protecting the home and homestead, and all that live within.  As a crone Goddess Tree, She can be a powerful magical ally during the winter months, and is especially suited for protecting children, pets and livestock.   

  1. Grow an Elder tree: Winter is when fruit trees are dormant-a perfect time to take a clipping from a friend or neighbor! Once the weather has cooled enough that the leaves have fallen off the tree, take a dozen cuttings, about a foot long, with a slanted cut at the bottom and straight at the top. Slice the bark off of the bottom inch of the cuttings, and submerge them halfway in water or roll them in rooting hormone and plant them in potting soil.  Either way, you will need to keep them warm, moist and humid, by placing them in a greenhouse or any sunny location with a plastic bag over the top, giving them fresh water frequently.  It will take at least 6-8 weeks for your cuttings to establish roots, but then it will be Spring and the ground will be ready for planting!  Elder can be planted directly in the ground and grown as a tree or shrub, trained as a hedgerow, or grown in a container (for those with smaller spaces).  

  2. Make a magic charm: Use thin Elder wood branches or twigs to make crosses or pentagrams or assemble dried berries and/or leaves to make satchels, amulets or mojo bags.  Wear, carry or hang above the doors and windows to keep evil and negative energies away and ward off attackers of any kind.  

Regardless of which Herbcrafting project you choose, remember to honor the Elder Mother with an offering, a song or a simple prayer of thanks (and of course remember to ask her permission before harvesting)  Spend a little time getting to know the Elder Mother, and She can be a beloved herbal ally during this cold and dark time of year.  

Happy Herbcrafting!

***Cautions/Disclaimers*** 

  • This article is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Please do additional research and consult with a licensed or certified health care practitioner before medical or internal use, especially with children, or when pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Only the berries of the black Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra) are truly edible, the Red Elderberries (Sambucus Racemosa) are TOXIC if raw, and even if cooked unless stripped of their seeds.  Even the Black Elderberries should always be cooked prior to consumption.  The raw berries are highly astringent and eating too many raw can cause stomach pain, nausea and vomiting.
  • The Elder root, leaves and bark should NOT be consumed internally.  While these parts were historically used in some folk medicine traditions, they now known to be TOXIC (containing traces of cyanide), and are contraindicated for internal use.    
  • Elderflowers may lower blood sugar levels.  Therefore internal use should be avoided within 2 weeks of a scheduled surgery, and should be avoided or used with caution by those with low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), or by those taking diabetes medications. 
  • Elderflowers may also have a diuretic effect.  Therefore, internal use should  be avoided or used with caution by those taking other diuretics, whether natural or pharmaceutical.