Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Elder deters flies

According to Florence Ranson, in her British Herbs (1949), elder (Sambucus nigra) has ‘the unusual distinction of being useful in every part’.  One of its many uses was to deter flies.

In 1915  Thurstan Peter noted: ‘Inspecting a [Cornish] slaughter house a summer or two a years ago, I commented on the absence of flies, and was told that this was due to a large elder bush growing some feet away and that the branches of elder in any building would keep flies away’ [1].

In 1950 Mary Standley Smith, who collected folklore from Women’s Institute groups, recorded from Wootton, Oxfordshire: ‘elder was used to keep flies away and was sometimes tied to horses’ heads for that purpose.’

Further information has been received as part of the Plant-lore Archive.  In 1988, Rodney Higgins, an early supporter of the project noted:

‘My wife, who comes from Northumberland, tells me that her mother used to make a concoction with elder flowers when she was a child, and all the family washed their faces in it to keep the virulent Northumbrian midges at bay.  She remembers it smelling not to pleasant and tended to keep other children away as well, so she would take the first opportunity of washing it off.  I also vaguely remember that local farmers draped elder flowers over horses to keep flies off in Sussex where I spent some of my childhood.’

In Somerset in 1946:  ‘Elder leaves [were] rubbed over face to discourage flies’.

Similarly, according to a St Osyth, Essex, correpondent writing in 1989: ‘As a youth my father worked on the land.  Often handling horses it was common practice to tie bunches of elder the harness to ward off flies.’

Similar practices have been recorded from Pimperne, Dorset, in 1992; (using elderberries) Chichester, West Sussex, in 1993, and Craven Arms, Shropshire, in 1996 .

And, from Horseheath, Cambridgeshire, it was recorded in 1991:  ‘According to some friends of mine elderberry bushes were planted by water butts and outside privies so the smell would keep the flies away.’

In 1993 it was recorded from Wimbledon, London, that ‘elder flowers hung up in the rooms banish house-flies.’

Being aware of these traditions at sometime around about the late 1960s the writer of this note attempted to discourage the houseflies which were infesting his parents’ farmhouse kitchen, in west Dorset. Leafy elder twigs were brought in and placed in jars of water, but they had no effect on the flies, which happily walked over them.  Perhaps the experiment would have worked better if the the leaves had been crushed?.

1. T. Peter, ‘Cornish folklore notes’, Journal of the Royal Cornish Institution 20: 123, 1915.

Image:  elder growing outside privy in Amersham Museum Herb Garden, Buckinghamshire; the elder was already growing outside the privy when the Garden was planted in the 1990s, when they considered its removal because it was damaging the building, but instead they severely pruned it; July 2023.