Tag Archives: transition

Sacred Trees in the Americas – The Magic, Medicine, and Uses of the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

One of the most majestic experiences you can have with trees is being surrounded by old-growth Tulip Poplar trees.  Tulips grow extraordinarily tall and straight, with thick gray trunks and spreading roots. You feel like you are in a cathedral, standing under these magnificent trees. The tulip trees get their name both from the leaves–which are shaped like a tulip and from their flowers–beautiful, large, showy orange and yellow flowers that look just like a tulip. You can find these trees easily in June as the showy tulip leaves begin to drop to the forest floor. They are also easy to spot in the winter–you can look up and see the remains of the tulip flowers, gone to seed, throughout the winter months–they look like little cups reaching up to the heavens, a beautiful sight.

We have one such grove of tulip trees in a local park near here–a local park called White’s Woods. Unfortunately, some township commissioners want to harvest a lot of these magnificent trees, so our community has been in a battle to save our forest for over a year now. What has amazed me about this entire fight, however, is how the tulip tree has become the symbol of the forest: people have gone to the woods, taking photos of the trees, hugging the trees, and more.  I have faith that we can win this battle to save our majestic tulip forest! 

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The Tulip tree is known by many names–here in Western Pennsylvania (USA) we use the term “Tulip” (which is how I’ll refer to this tree in my post). Further out east and in the south, I’ve heard it called “Tulip Poplar.” In his book A Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane notes that it is also called “Whitewood”, “Yellow Poplar”, or “Popple.” It is also known as “fiddletree” and “canoewood” for reasons that will be apparent in this post. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. Whatever your name for this tree–let’s spend some time today getting to know the ecology, mythology, and magic of this most wonderful tree. The magnificent tulip trees throughout North America have much to teach us, if only we listen.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology of the Tulip Tree

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

Despite the fact that they are commonly called a poplar, tulip trees are in the magnolia family, and thus, share some qualities with other magnolias, including the large leaves and showy flowers. The Tulip tree is characterized by an extremely tall and straight growth habit and is one of the largest trees in North America. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. In extraordinary cases, they can grow up to 170-190 feet high, although the average is still about 160 feet tall. The Tulip has several key features that make it a really incredible tree: it grows fast; it has strong, light-colored wood; the wood is not brittle or weak like many other fast-growing trees; and it grows straight and tall. The base of the trunks often flare out and then meet the tall-growing trunk—this is why they are called “fiddle tree” as their root base and trunk can appear to look like a fiddle from the distance. 

The tulip tree is considered a “mid succession” tree from an ecological perspective. They are shade intolerant, so they grow fast and usually come into dominance 50-150 years after a forest regrows. As the climax species take over (hardwood nut trees: oaks, hickories, etc.), they will decline. Thus, you can use Tulip to help read the age of a forest and have a sense of a forest’s history. Here in Western and Central Pennsylvania, this is particularly useful: we had almost 92-98% of the forest cover cut due to industrialization from about 1880 to 1920. So we are in that 50-150 year range where we have many beautiful large stands of Tulip trees.

The other interesting thing to know about history is that the tulip is a very ancient tree representing older forms of tree life. The Tulip tree has an older, less evolved seed pod than other more recent trees, which also accounts for its unique flowers. We have fossils from ancient tulip trees from the upper cretaceous period (70-100 million years ago); from that fossil record, we know that it once was much more widespread but now only two species remain in the Liriodendron family: the North American Tulip Poplar tree and the Liriodendron Chinese, which grows in China and Vietnam. It is likely that many Tulips were destroyed in glaciation in the Pleistocene era.

The trees begin to flower in June here in Pennsylvania, but you might see flowering as early as April in much warmer southern states. The flowers range from light yellow to light green and have bright orange in their centers. I’ve seen photos of tulip trees with almost white flowers, but nearly all of them where I live are light yellow as the photos I am sharing suggest. The leaves also look like a tulip–the leaves grow in an alternate pattern and are 5-6″ wide, heart-shaped, and have four lobes looking like the points on a tulip flower. They are quite distinctive here in the Eastern US–no other tree has a leaf anything like Tulip, making them easy to identify. In the fall, they have brilliant yellow foliage that is brighter but the same kind of yellow as their flowers earlier in the year. Their bark is brown and has many deep ridges as the tree ages—they almost look like the ridges here in the northern Appalachian Mountains, running parallel along the landscape. Younger branches are smooth and reddish and later grow into the darker brown.

Tulip tree flower close up!

John Eastman describes some of the ecologies of these trees: they are often found with beeches and maples. I have also seen them here with Cherries and some limited hardwood nut trees (oak, butternut). Eastman says you can find them in bottomland forests, but here, we see them growing along wet hillsides and slopes. Birds including cardinals and finches, consume the seeds in the winter along with squirrels and mice.

Human Uses

Tulip tree is one of the most valuable hardwoods in North America due to its quick growth, straight growing habit, and strong wood. In the US, it is usually marketed as “poplar” but abroad it is sold as “American tulipwood.” It is used for instruments, like organs and pianos, and can also used as interior finish/veneer, used for wide floorboards, boxes, bowls, and more. It is comparable to White Pine and usually more abundant due to its distribution and growth habitat. It resistance to termites and thus, can be used for barn and house beams (I’m not sure I’d use this over black locust, but it is still a great wood!) The wood is nice to work and doesn’t split. Charlotte Erichsen-Brown notes that in Pennsylvania, natives and colonists alike used it for canoes, boards, planks, bowls, dishes, spoons, doorposts, and joiners roofs because it was so easily worked and strong.

Tulip tree is well known in the bushcraft communities for a wide range of uses. Tulip inner bark (cambium) is an excellent emergency food (which I have not tried); the inner bark can also be used as an excellent tinder to make a nest for starting a fire using a bow drill, hand drill, or flint and steel (which I have tried). You can use a single tulip poplar downed branch to start a warm fire: stripping the bark for kindling and your nest, and then using the branch wood itself to start the blaze. You can also make a nice bow drill set from tulip poplar—it is harder than a beginner set (made of something soft like paw paw) but is a great for both a hearth board and a spindle. The inner bark also can be twisted into a rope or cordage. Tulip bark, when freshly cut, can be cut and peeled in the spring, so you can use it to make really nice bark baskets, arrow quivers, and more. It is also a very popular carving wood for spoons, bowls, and other functional crafts. I often will hike through the forest and look for downed tulip trees, eagerly ready to harvest their bark if the chance permits! Here’s an overview of some of the uses.

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest


Tulip poplar makes an excellent early to midseason food source for bees, and you can sometimes find honey from Tulip trees at local farmer’s markets.Tulip flowers also have some nectar that is in the cup that can be enjoyed directly—but best of luck trying to find low hanging flowers for your to enjoy. I’ve only had a chance to taste this very infrequently in my foraging travels because usually the flowers are 150 feet up the tree! Speaking of foraging, you might get lucky and find morel mushrooms near or under these trees as this is one of the common places they grow.

The Native Americans used this tree extensively for a range of uses as described by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. For example, one name of this tree is “Canoewood” which refers to the fact that many Native American tribes, including the Harriot in Virginia, used the massive Tulip tree trunks for making large dugout canoes (using fire-based methods). Captain John Smith in 1612 described these canoes as being 40-50 feet in length and carry 40 passengers.  This, most certainly, is how the tree got its name “canoewood.”

Tulip Poplar Medicine

The tulip tree is really a tree that keeps on giving and helping humans in so many ways, and that includes a range of medicinal treatments.

Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal: New World Herbs notes that the tulip tree bark is used primarily for medicine. The bark is sweet, acrid and aromatic. Quinine, which is a very effective Malaria treatment, was made from the Cinchona tree—in the absence of Quinine, you can use the bark of the Tulip tree. Tulip tree contains salicylates, which, along with Willow and Birch, can be used for pain relief. It can also be used to support digestion, restore people to health after they are worn out with fever and tension, strengthen and calm the heart/cardiovascular system, and also supports arthritis. Other modern uses of this tree include using the leaves as a poultice for sores or scrapes. The inner bark can be used to support a healthy fever and to aid in digestion. The inner bark can help treat pinworms or other worm issues.

Traditionally, as Erichsen-Brown notes, the leaves can be crushed and placed on the forehead to help with a headache. The Osages collected the bark in the winter months for a range of treatments–the winter bark has a higher medicinal content. A bark decoction (strong tea) can be used as a dewormer for horses, as a powerful blood purifier (alterative), and for treating a variety of stomach conditions. The inner bark of the root is considered the most powerful, but any of the inner bark can work for these purposes.

The Magic and Mythology of the Tulip Tree

Tulip Roots -- this is about a 30 year old tree.

Tulip Roots — this is about a 30 year old tree.

The Tulip Tree does not appear to have any recorded uses within the traditional Western magical traditions: in consulting my giant pile of usual sources, I do not see it listed at all.  This is honestly the case with many Northern Appalachian trees I’ve been covering recently in this series–if they do not have an old-world equivalent or if they are also not located predominately in the deep south, they have no record of magical use.  This doesn’t mean that they aren’t magical–Tulip is a magical tree!  It just means that it does not appear to have use in Hoodoo or traditional Western Occultism. In a similar manner, the Tulip isn’t discussed in the Native American lore that I can find in any way outside of the utilitarian uses.

One small tidbit: the American poet, Walt Whitman, indicated that the Tulip Tree was the ““the Apollo of the woods–tall and graceful.”

Magical and Divination Uses of the Tulip Tree

Given the lack of sources on magical uses, we have to draw upon the doctrine of signatures, the historical uses of tulip, the ecology, and growth habits to explore some possible magical and divination uses for the tree.  Here are three possibilities:

Utility and Practicality: one of the things about the tulip tree is that it has a tremendous amount of utility: it grows fast, produces amazing food, shelter, and medicine, and it offers bountiful—yet—utilitarian gifts to all who seek them.  This is a tree that encourages us to be practical and to think about utilitarian uses rather than frivolous ones.

Mid-succession and Transition: I think that the fact that the Tulip is a mid-succession tree is important to its potential magical qualities. Trees often take on specific qualities depending on if they are first-aid responders / land healers, mid-succession, and pinnacle species. As a Mid-succession tree, Tulip occupies a very important place in the larger lifespan of a forest: it helps us move beyond the first responder trees, carrying on from their early work.  It holds space for a period of time, and preparing the way for what is to come. When I think about a lot of work that many of us do as land healers, permaculturists, herbalists, and druids—I think about us now as having this kind of energy. The past is gone, and with it, a lot of knowledge was lost.  We are in a very difficult time of transition and suffering for nature, but we are here to hold those spaces and help aid in the transition. Whatever is coming, we are not there yet, but we are holding space in this time and place for what is to come.  The Tulip tree tells us to stand tall and strong in this regard!

Connection to Ancient Ancestors: Because the Tulip is such an ancient tree, it can connect us with our ancient human ancestors, those whose ways and names are lost to the mists of time.  That reminder is in every seed pod and flower, and certainly, in the roots of these magnificent ancient trees.  They have survived an ice age, they have witnessed countless changes over hundreds of millions of years, and they stand with us today to share that ancient wisdom and bridge to tomorrow.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the Tulip Poplar tree! If you have any stories, information, or ideas about the Tulip tree, I would love to hear from you. Blessings!

Elder (Sambucus Canadensis): Sacred Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Uses of the Elder Tree

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

I remember when I first found the massive elderberry patch. It was a few summer solstices ago. There is an overlook deep in the state forest lands, where the roads are more goat path than vehicle worthy, and it takes about 45 minutes to go only a few miles. The overlook is facing east and you can see across multiple counties, for countless miles. Visiting the overlook earlier in the summer, I had said to my mother how much I’d love to witness the summer solstice sunrise from that spot. And so, at 4:30 am on the morning of the solstice we got up and were dismayed to find that it was overcast and drizzling. With hope in our hearts that it would clear, we made our way up the winding path, avoiding potholes and huge rocks, and eventually to that mountain overlook.  It was still gray and overcast, the opposite of what I had hoped to witness that day. The sun was not interseted in coming out to greet us. We were a bit saddened by the experience, and began our drive back. Suddenly, something caught my eye—a whole lot of something. A massive patch of hundreds of elderberry bushes, all in incredible bloom. We had bags for foraging in the car (my family is rather obsessed with foraging and mushroom hunting; you don’t leave the house without foraging gear) and so we stopped to pick them.  It was magical.  and I made my first batch of elderflower cordial later that day.

 

That morning so dreary, and the elder was so bright. She lived in a swampy area, so my sandaled feet were covered in mud. She had brambles growing all below her, so I was scratched up from tangling with the brush. But getting to pick that beautiful cluster of flowers, and taste the joy of the elderflower cordial—it was a true delight. There is so much transition here–and transition is one of the key themes that Elder offers. And so, in today’s post, we will explore the magic, medicine, folklore, and mystery of the elder tree. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. We’ll do this to understand elder’s role on the landscape and what gifts she may offer us—and how we, too, may seek her deep mysteries.

 

About the Elder Tree

The Elder tree (Sambucus spp.) has over 26 different varieties found throughout the world. Here in the Eastern US, the most common elder we have is Sambucus Canadensis, or the black elder. I will focus the remaining post on the black elder as this is the elder that I have the most experience with, but do recognize that most of what I’m discussing can likely apply to other kinds of elders. Sambucus Canadensis is known by a variety of names including the common elder, American elder, black elder, elder blow, Canada elder, sweet elderberry.  According to Grieve in her Modern Herbal, more names for Elder include Pipe tree, bore tree, bour tree, hylder, hylantree, eldrum, and ellhorn.  All of these names have rich histories and are seeped in lore and tradition.

 

Elder typically grows in areas that are damp or wet such as ditches, flood plains, near streams and lakeshores, but I’ve also seen it growing in typical moist forests as well, either along the edges or as an understory species. It can grow in full sun or part shade, but shade will likely reduce the number of flowers and berries produced. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman describes the cup-shaped fungus (auricularia aricula) that grows on elder in the spring and fall. This mushroom, called a “Judas ear” or “Brown ear” is a delicious culinary treat. In rich wet soil with ample sun, elder can produce an amazing amount of flowers and berries that provide habitat and foraging for over 40 species of birds along with a host of mammals including squirrels, foxes, mice, and groundhogs. And, as anyone who has gone to gather elderflowers at midsummer knows—ample insect life. Not to mention, delicious flowers and berries that humans can enjoy.

 

Edible Qualities of the Elder

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderberry is an incredible food and medicine for humans, and we have long cultivated a rich relationship with elder. As a food, Elderberry is high in Vitamin C, as well as A, Iron, Calcium, and Potassium. However, fresh from the bush, elderberry has a bit of rankness or skunkyness; this is completely eliminated by drying or canning. Some sources suggest that the fresh elderberries should not be eaten raw because they can sometimes cause an upset stomach. I’ve read this statement in a lot of books, and maybe it is true, but I’ve never heard anyone who has actually gotten a stomach problem from them. As a child, my cousins and I enjoyed them every year and ate them fresh from the bush. We were fine, but we are also hardy mountain people!  It may be that this is true of Elder species other than Sambucus Canadensis.

 

The fruits and flowers both are culinary treats, used in creating beverages as well as jams and jellies. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus (which is, to this day, one of my very favorite foraging books), Euell Gibbons describes his version of elderberry jelly, to which he also adds staghorn sumac. I’ve modified his recipe as follows to be a lower-sweetener/sugar version employing Pamona’s pectin (for low sugar canning) rather than normal pectin. First, you begin by stripping the berries of stalks (the easiest way is actually to freeze the berries—then they pop off of the stalks easily). You don’t want the stalks as they are not edible. Next, cover the berries with water and simmer for 30 min, mashing them as they cook in the water. While the berries are simmering, take several heads of staghorn sumac, break them up, and soak them in water for 10 or so minutes). Strain both elderberries and staghorn sumac. Combine 1 cup of staghorn sumac juice to 3 cups elderberry juice (or any higher amount, using this ratio) with between ¼ or ½ cup sweetener (I use honey or raw cane sugar) per cup of liquid (so this recipe would call for a minimum of 1 cup sweetener and up to 2 cups sweetener). Add 4 teaspoons of Pamona’s pectin and 4 teaspoons of calcium water (which you make with the Pamona’s pectin) and bring the whole mix to a hard boil for one minute. Mix these very well, then add to sterilized jars and hot water bath can them for 20 minutes. Gibbons also offers a “juice” version of this that uses no pectin, but in similar ratios to the above to taste. I want to make a note about the pectin used here—Pamona’s pectin is a special low sugar pectin that allows you to “set” jams and jellies using very low amounts of added sugar; normal pectin requires high amounts of sugar for setting.

 

 

Another recipe Gibbons offers is an “Elderberry Rob”, which is where you take a quart of the elderberry juice (prepared in the manner I described above) and add 1 stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and a whole nutmeg. You boil this for 30 minutes, and then add a cup of sugar or honey (if you add honey, you can also use this as a cough syrup). If you are adding raw honey, wait till it cools down so that you also get the medicinal benefits of honey. Finally, a recipe I have yet to try is Gibbon’s “Old time face cream”, where you add 1oz lanolin, 8oz cocoa butter and a handful of elderflowers in a double boiler, then strain and pour into small jars. I like the sound of this!  Elderflower is slighty asringent, so it would make sense that this cream would tone the face beautifully.

 

The Elusive Sambucca and Childhood Toys

As children know, you can make a simple instrument or blow gun from the Elder tree. Culpepper describes this in his herbal, “I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder.” A youngish stalk can have the pith hollowed out to make a hollow tube. The tube can be used for a number of things including flutes, blow-guns, and even, taps for maple syrup trees (homemade spiels), as Gibbons describes in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. As the elder matures, the walls of the stalks thicken and the soft white pith gets less pliable, so younger stalks are often better for these than old granny stalks (and who would want to cut old granny stalks of elder anyways? That would just lead to bad things).

 

In fact, the etymology of the Latin term for elder, Sambucca, has an interesting history. I have found references to a Sambuca (or Sambuke in Ancient Greek) that is an ancient instrument that apparently gave Elderberry its Latin name. In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood explains that panpipes were originally made from Elder and tied to Pan, the lord of the forest.  As someone who plays the panpipes, I can attest to the truth in this statement!

 

What I haven’t been able to find in any detail is how to actually craft the panpipes themselves out of elder—but that hasn’t stopped me from trying, as panflute is my primary instrument. So far, I’ve failed primarily in the harvest department—the wood gets thicker and thicker till it’s too thick for a good tube. That’s about what I’ve learned so far—there’s a lot more work on this project to be done and someday, I will post more about it once I figure it out. There are some good instructions on making more simple elderberry flutes, for those who are interested. But, I do wonder, what does the elder flute sound like? What haunting melodies would emerge from a Sambuca? Would it only play for the spirits, or would human ears be able to hear it? Given the richness of the elder “song” in the Native American legends, I cannot wait to hear it for myself.

 

One of Elder’s anachronistic names also offers some additional insight: the Anglo-Saxon term “aeld” means “fire.” According to Grieve, Aled eventually became Elder. The original “fire” use referred to the hollow stems being used as a fire tube for blowing oxygen onto the flame. I actually think this is a really important aspect of Elder here in the US and one not to be overlooked.

 

Medicine of the Elder

The Elder is a highly medicinal tree with a range of uses for the bark, leaves, flowers, and berries. The flowers are primarily used as a diaphoretic, that is, they increase periphery circulation and are used for fever support. According to herbalist Adele Dawson, Elderflower is a wonderful support for influenza, especially for addressing the achiness that is so present in the body. Elder increases circulation and sweating, which helps rid the muscles of some of the toxins that build up during influenza.  Herbalist Jim McDonald recommends using elderflower in conjunction with boneset for supporting a healthy fever response (which is not the same as suppressing a fever). Here is a great video of Jim teaching about elder.

 

Elderberry is a strong immune system supporter and can be part of a daily herbal routine to combat regular seasonal illnesses (such as the horrible flu that goes around every year). Elderberry and Echinacea Purpea form a very powerful immune support team.  As I was taught about this plant from herbalist Jim McDonald, elderberry is best used for daily immune system support, to keep you from getting sick. Once you get sick though, it is better to take Echinacea because that stimulates an acute immune system response (through increasing white blood cells).  I actually make an elderberry elixir, a recpie I’ve shared on this blog before, and take that regularly during the year to avoid sickness and boost the immune system.

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Matthew Wood notes that elder bark is semi-toxic, and because of this, it.can be used for an emetic drink—to induce vomiting if that is needed. How like the elder–she’ll give freely of her fruit and flowers, but take her bark and pay the price! John Eastman describes that the Onodaga would drink a brew of elder bark to try to remedy for poison hemlock poisoning (it would make you throw up the poison if you drank it quickly enough). Given that elder and poison hemlock have very similar growing conditions, this makes sense; a lot of “cures” can be found right next to the “poison” itself.  Although I think the best approach would be to avoid poison hemlock to begin with….

There’s a lot more to say about the medicine of the elder—I just detailed several of many uses.  You can see Jim’s video (above) and the link to Grieve’s entry on Elder here for more information.

 

 

Magical Uses of the Elder in Western and American Magical Traditions

Because of its place as an Ogham tree and potent magic, Elder has long been recognized as an important plant ally and has an incredibly rich tie to magic and folklore.

 

Elder is one of the 22 trees in the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet. It is distinguished by five lines and is tied to the Ogham letter “R” and “Ruis.” The Elder, as an Ogham tree, has strong connections to the fairy realm (as both a gateway as well as the tree representing the Queen of the Fairy, in some tales).  In Ogham, the general divination meaning of Elder is tied to Venus (as a water-loving plant) and to the element of water. Her meanings are many, but are often tied to transformation; regeneration; life, death and rebirth; endings; and fate.  In the Celtic Tree Oracle, for example, Liz and Colin Murry tie this “rebirth” quality to the Pair Dadeni, the Celtic cauldron of rebirth, which is said to be able to revive the dead (as described in the second branch of the Mabinogi).

 

Like any powerful magical plant, Elder has both beneficial aspects as well as warnings to heed, as with any other very potent plant ally. In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes Elder as both “harmful” and “helpful” depending on how it is used. As long as elder is kept out of the house, it can bring a host of magical protection. People have planted elder outside of their houses, for example, for deflecting hostile magic; similarly, elder was planted in cemeteries to allow the dead to rest in peace.  Elder was used to fasten doors shut or tied to windows and doors to keep out the fey as well as other kinds of hostile magic and also used in barns for this same kind of protection.  If the elder was gathered on Beltane eve, it was particularly potent for this purpose. In Hoodoo, likewise, elder pegs were dressed (rubbed) with High John the Conqueror oil  and driven into the earth around a business or home to keep the law away (see Yronwode, Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, for more details).

 

All of these good and protective qualities, however, go away if you take Elder indoors in most cases—the tree spirit gets a bit angry and feisty. If you burn elder wood, you summon evil spirits. A baby crib made of elder for example, angers the tree spirit and the spirit pinches the baby till it is bruised and crying. Similarly, napping under an elder tree is a very bad idea; it is believed to cause madness (probably because of its association as a gateway to the otherworld and fairy traditions).

 

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

In the American Hoodoo tradition, it is similarly used as a protective herb; when leaves, berries, or roots are carried they offer protection, particularly against illness. In Hooodoo Root and Herb Magic, Cat Yronwode shares a particularly interesting ritual involving elder.  First you cut a fresh elder stick, draw a circle in the dirt around you, standing inside the circle, and make your wish or prayer.  Hoodoo practitioners don’t seem to have the prohibitions against elder being indoors that the Old World magical traditions seem to have.  For example, hoodoo practitioners use pieces of it inside the house to protect the house from thieves, shield one from prying eyes, and proved physical and spiritual protection. I wonder if this has to do with the different nature of the otherworld on American soil vs. European soil—or perhaps Sambucus Canadensis is simply more friendly than its European counterpart, Sambucus Nigra.

 

Matthew Wood, in the Earthwise Herbal describes how the North American Indians and Europeans were in the tradition of making offerings to the elder.  North American Indiana made offerings at each elder plant when picking them for use. Europeans believed Elder was the “elder mother” or “hylde moer”, who was Queen of the Fairy or Queen of the Underworld—a powerful and potent force. Each elder tree had a “little elder mother” that lived there; they would make offerings at the base of the elder tree, to the little elder mother, to encourage good harvest and potent medicine from the elder.

 

Elder in Native American Mythology

Native American mythology offers us some additional insight into the magic of the elder tree, as it manifests on the soil here in the Americas.

 

In one Miwok legend, How Tol-le-loo Stole Fire, Tol-le-loo has an elderberry flute that he takes with him to a village. Tol-le-loo has the intention of stealing the villager’s fire; to further his goal, he plays his flute and all of the villagers start to fall asleep. Wit-ta-bah, a robin, sees what is happening and spreads his wings over embers to protect it, but the flute eventually puts Wit-ta-bah to sleep as well. Tol-le-loo cuts a hole in Wit-ta-bah’s wing to get at the fire, steals the fire embers, and puts the fire in his flute for safekeeping while he climbs up to the top of a mountain. The fire stays in the flute till he takes it out.

 

In  a second Miwok legend, the Birth of Wik’-Wek and the Creation of Man, there is but a single elder tree, the lah’-pah, in the world at the dawn of time.  This single elder tree was located “where the sun gets up” in the east, surrounded byt a den of rattlesnakes.  The passage from the story is so beautiful, I want to share it here:

 

“Its branches, as they swayed in the wind, made a sweet musical sound. The tree sang; it sang all the time, day and night, and the song was good to hear. Wik’-wek looked and listened and wished he could have the tree. Near by he saw two Hol-luk’-ki or Star-people, and as he looked he perceived that they were the Hul-luk mi-yum’-ko–the great and beautiful women-chiefs of the Star-people. One was the Morning Star, the other Pleiades Os-so-so’-li. They were watching and working close by the elderberry tree. Wek’-wek liked the music and asked the Star-women about it. They told him that the tree whistled songs that kept them awake all day and all night so they could work all the time and never grow sleepy. They had the rattlesnakes to keep the birds from carrying off the elderberries.

 

So in the first legend, the song of the elder flute put people to sleep, but in this case, the song of the elder tree allowed the star-people to keep working and created the “soft whistling song of the elderberry tree.” But these people aren’t normal people, they are star-people and chiefs, so that might be part of the difference. Eventually, Wik’-wek is able to secure a piece of the elder tree and plant it all over the country to offer the Indian people food, music, and medicine. In another tale, which talks talks about this same legend from a book called Tower Legends, the author notes that since all of the elderberry trees came from that singing tree, elderberry trees sing even when there is no wind.

 

In the Tsimshian Texts, a brief note is indicated that Elderberry bush gave birth to her children before little stone, and this is part of why Indians do not live as long. There is not more than this short story, but it does also give the “life and death” theme we find above.

 

Elderflower in hand....ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Elderflower in hand….ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Finally, in the Hoo’-Koo’-E’-Ko legend, “How O’-Ye The Coyote-man Discovered his Wife”, O’-ye the Coyote man is the creator of the world.  The world was covered in ocean, but eventually the waters receded and there was enough land. O’Ye planted the most important trees to the people: buckeye, oak, and elderberry with many other plants in order to help make the world.

 

Conclusion: Sacred Meanings of the Elder Tree

The Elder is a tree richly steeped in lore and mysticism around the world. Given all of the above, here are several magical and divinatory meanings, based on the tree’s role here in North America:

 

  • Elder is a tree of transitions.  Elder is a boundary tree; she gaurds the boundaries between life and death, between sickness and health, between this world and the otherworld.  Like any transition point, this can be a dangerous road to travel, but can also lead to rich rewards.

 

  • Elder “sings” and offers a magical spirit song that can be used for a variety of purposes. Elder’s long associate with woodwind instruments (sambucca, flutes in the Americas) as well as the many legends about the elder trees in song suggest that a magical sound comes from the tree herself as well as any instruments created from elder branches.  These instruments, always some kind of flute, can be used to slow things down (putting people to sleep, into a revere, into a quiet meditation) or to speed things up/raise energy.  It is all in the intention of the tree or the musician.

 

  • Elder requires caution and wisdom in use. In both of the magical uses above, Elder has two sides: a healing and a harming side; a side of death and a side of life. Knowing how to use her well, how to seek her as a guide, is something that requires wisdom and knowledge of her inner workings.  Here, I also point to the elder’s use as a fire blow stick–she is a lot like the fire itself.  Tend and respect the fire carefully and you have a warm house and a hot meal.  Fail to respect her, and she will burn your house to the ground. And so, failing to use her medicine and magic wisely can end you in a lot of trouble (being caught in the rattlesnake den, trapped in the otherworld, or being tortured by the spirit of the little elder). Tread carefully, friends.

 

As the new spring season is quickly upon us, you might see if you can seek some elder this year–and learn the many things she has to teach.  Blessings!