Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


1. I’m from Italy, there we collect elderberries to make a jam which is good for colds and that sort of thing [Tooting Common, London, April 2023].

2. A Polish name for elder is ‘Poor-man’s chemist’ [Earlsfield, London, October 2022].

3. My Nana Davies (Welsh) swore that she protected her family from the Spanish flu epidemic with a home-made elderflower tea concoction [Shropshire Council for the Preservation of Rural England, January 2022].

4. I know an Austrian woman who takes elder-flower tea for insomnia; she makes it with dried flowers and drinks it before she goes to bed [Tooting, London, June 2021].

5.  I gave a tour at the botanical garden in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and one of the guests told me about an old custom, I am not sure if she had seen this herself.  Anyway, she told me that in the past people buried elder under the entrance doorway to protect the house against witches [Leiden,  The Netherlands, October 2020].

6. Thick stems of elderberry were whittled away on the knee with a curved knife to fashion an incurving chrysanthemum, after drying it was attached to a piece of privet [Ligustrum ovalifolium].  These were made by gypsies – my dad’s traveller friends; he was a rag-and-bone man [Beddington, Surrey, May 2019].

7.  In the centre of Farnham, Surrey, the shopkeepers give you hot elderberry wine if you visit them at Christmas time – at least they did three years ago [Ruskin Park, London, October 2017].*

8.  [Germany]  My grandma and my father gave me and my sister hot elderberry juice to drink against a beginning cold.  We drank it and started to sweat out the cold [Honor Oak, London, April 2016]

9.  Shropshire and Staffordshire – elderberry bushes planted beside the garden privy [Storrington, West Sussex, October 2015].

10. One day in day the 1950s when I was a child I was tackling the job with an axe or billhook of chopping down an elder tree which was growing up against a wall of our house. Our parish clergyman … walked past as I was dealing the fatal blows.  Without pausing in his stride he asked if I’d said sorry to the witch.  It was the first I’d heard that elder trees and witches had anything to do with each other.  The question startled me, especially as itr came from someone I was used to seeing in the pulpit expounding the Gospels.  Whether I finished cutting down the witch’s home I can’t remember [Yeovil, Somerset, November 2014].

11.  As a child growing up in rural Norfolk we would go to a nearby small wood and make pop guns. A section of elder stem, a piece of another tree the diameter to fit into the elder, and acorns squeezed into the elder stem,  Push the rod into the open end of elder stem and force the acorn out by build up of pressure.  Late 1940s, early 1950s [Lichfield, Staffordshire, September 2014].

12.  My mother-in-law used to make elderflower liqueur. It was sweet, delicious and had a warm ‘kick’ [Whitstable, Kent, May 2012].

2014-07-23 13.44.3013. [Somerset, 1940s] Elderberries were made into a syrup with honey and lemon for sore throats. The juice from elderberries was used to flavour stewed apple – very popular for people with dentures who didn’t like blackberry pips ‘getting under their plate’. The pith was removed from thicker, straighter sticks and made into whistles. I never did discover how this was done but I was given one by an older boy [St Marychurch, Devon, August 2011].

14. I remember a woman when I was a child [c.1960] in my village in Cornwall who collected elderberries to use them as currants [Chepstow, Monmouthshire, June 2011].

15. My father was head gardener at Chillington Hall on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, 1960-71. My nan and mother made pincushions from elder pith, you would pack the pith tightly in a small bowl of water to keep it damp [Westminster, London, June 2011].

16.  [Suffolk, c. 1948] I remember making toy guns from elder. You would push out the pith, and then push in another piece of stick to force the bullet out. I can’t remember what we used for bullets [Orpington, Kent, February 2011].

17. Fishing with elderberries beneath the float is a traditional, but now largely neglected, approach to tempt coarse fish (primarily dace and roach, but also chub).  It’s heyday was probably the 1950s-70s, but few anglers still try it today (including myself). It’s usually associated with fishing rivers and canals and is something I’ve tried on and off in the past on rivers (Welland and Witham) with a bit of success, but nothing staggering.  I strongly suspect they will be good bait for large carp and barbel too and shall try them this autumn! The berries look a lot like tares and large hemp seeds (two very successful baits) when under water and this may be part of their attraction.  They tend to be used by anglers that favour the ‘natural bait’ approach – it’s rather romantic to fish [?with] them on a float beneath an overhanging elder [Chesham, Buckinghamshire, April 2009].

18. In my part of the country – Pembrokeshire – you had to ask permission [of the tree] before you cut elder [Natural History Museum, London, March 2004].

19. In Cyprus – my husband’s Cypriot – they use elderflowers as an eye wash for sticky eyes [Natural History Museum, London, May 2003].

20. Sambucus nigra, elderberry, was planted near the house to keep away witches and to prevent lightning strikes [St Martin, Guernsey, April 2002].

21. Elder – don’t cut it down; it keeps bad spirits away from the house. Elderberry rob – a kind of jam from the berries – good for coughs [Kingsbridge, Devon, April 1999].

22. I remember from my childhood in the twenties and thirties in Longbridge Deverill, Wilts … Elderflower water – to improve the complexion and whiten it [Aldbury, Hertfordshire, February 1998].

23. As a boy visiting relatives in this part of Suffolk, I was told that the offensive stink of elder was given to it in order to remind us all that its timber had been used in the construction of the True Cross – very unlikely, of course [Botesdale, Suffolk, February 1998].

24. I was born in Reepham, Norfolk, in 1925 … Grow an elder bush near the door and it keeps the flies out [Luton, Bedfordshire, January 1997].

25. We were never allowed to bring elder into the house, as it was unlucky [Aston Munslow, Shropshire, March 1983].

*This custom appears to be extinct, when Farnham was visited on Saturday 22 December 2018, mulled wine, described as ‘weak’ but otherwise unidentified, was on offer in only one shop, a florists.

Selected from approximately 250 items on elder in Plant-lore Archive.

Images:  main, Blackberry Way, The Shire Country Park, Birmingham, June 2015;  upper inset, elder flowers for sale at the Pimlico Farmers Market, City of Westminster, 9 June 2018; lower inset, Flanders Field Community Garden, East Ham, London Borough of Newham, July 2014.