As we’re at the height of cold and flu season, I’ve lately been pondering elderberry and the etymology of the name. etymonline.com gives us this definition:
“type of berry tree, c. 1400, from earlier ellen, from Old English ellæn, ellærn “elderberry tree,” origin unknown, perhaps related to alder, which at any rate might be the source of the unetymological -d-. Common Germanic, cognates: Old Saxon elora, Middle Low German elre, Old High German elira, German Eller, Erle. Related: Elderberry.”
That didn’t really answer my question, though, about elderberry and why we call it that. So, I continued my search by looking for elderberry lore. Here I found an interesting tidbit:
“Its hollow branches have proved useful for all manner of pipes and bellows; in fact, its name probably originates with the Anglo-Saxon ‘eller’, meaning a kindler of fire. In Ireland, elder was a sacred tree, and it was forbidden to break even one twig.”
Further down the rabbit hole, I came across more woodwind lore, here: “As everyone knows (or ought to know), the Faery Folk love music and merrymaking, and best of all they like the music from instruments made of elder wood. Wood from the elder tree lends itself well to the making of whistles, pipes, chanters and other musical instruments, as the branches contain a soft pithy core which is easily removed to create hollow pipes of a pale, hard, easily-polished wood. (Some of elder’s many vernacular names include bour- or boretree). The most auspicious time to encounter faeries was under an elder bush on Midsummer’s Eve, when the Faery King and Queen and their train could be seen passing. There are many references in folklore advising against sleeping under an elder and it has been suspected that the strong smell of elder leaves may have mildly narcotic influences.
In common with other trees with white blossoms, such as hawthorn and rowan, the elder had strong associations with Faery- and Goddess-centred mythology. Like rowan, the elder was thought of as being a protective tree, and it was auspicious if it was growing near one’s dwelling, especially if it had seeded itself there. If the rowan’s place was traditionally at the front of the house, the elder’s was at the back door, to keep evil spirits and other negative influences from entering the home.”
Besides the fascinating lore, everyone knows (or ought to know) that elderberry is fantastic for fighting back against the cold and flu. Planetherbs gives us this simple recipe for an Elderberry “Rob” that you can make at home.
elderberries, fresh, crushed 5 pounds
brown sugar, raw (or honey) 1 pound
Put berries in pot with enough water to cover. Simmer slowly for 15 minutes, strain and press. Add brown sugar or honey. Evaporate in a double boiler to the thickness of syrup. Pour into a wide-mouthed jar that has been heated. This is taken as a cordial, aperient and diuretic. One or 2 tablespoons mixed in a little warm water at night promotes perspiration and is demulcent to the chest and lungs.
Caution: Unripe or uncooked elderberries may be poisonous