Elder: Tree of Transformation by Jo Dunbar

At this time of the year, the hedgerows are dripping with spider webs and elderberries.  The elder tree is beloved of gypsies, witches and country folk.  She is known as Helder Moer in Danish (also spelled Hyldemoer), the elder mother, and is associated with the wisdom of the cunning woman.  I know not of another tree which has so much plant lore associated with it.  Bringing it into the house was forbidden as it brought witches into the home, yet it was planted just outside the back door to protect from witches, and burning it was (and still is) absolutely never permitted, for within the tree lived the spirit of Helder Moer who would rain fury upon those who burned her tree, and I have actually witness this happening.  Elder is the tree of transformation, and of Samhain.  The tree of endings and new beginnings.  We can use her magic in our kitchen remedies to both empower us and also transform our health. 

It is beloved by herbalists because every part of the plant can be used, but we particularly love to use the flowers in the summer to treat hay-fever symptoms and prickly heat.  In winter, it is the berries that we turn to, which provide a goodly dose of vitamin C to boost our immune systems, and are potently active against viruses.   

The ancient herbals mention an elderberry preparation which was ancient even in those long ago days, and it was known as Elderberry Rob.  I make a version of it every year, and below is my recipe.  

Elderberry Rob:

It is such an enjoyable task – wandering along the hedgerows in the gentle sunshine of late summer, collecting the blue-black berries. Once you have got your hoard home, rinse them off, and using a fork, pull the berries off the stems.  Discard the stems, and cover the berries with water in a saucepan.  Turn up the heat and bring to the boil, and then turn down to a simmer.  Once simmering, I squash the berries with a potato masher and add to this brew a good handful of fresh grated ginger, some fresh turmeric, some cinnamon quills, a few cloves, unwaxed lemon peel (all of which have anti-bacterial properties).  Now, because I am a medical herbalist, I would also add a handful of dried Echinacea, Astragulus and Elecampane (or whichever other herbs I think will be helpful). You can add handfuls of fresh (or even dried) Thyme or Hyssop to protect against chest infections. Turn off the heat, and quickly cover with a lid to prevent the aromatic volatile oils from the herbs escaping.  Leave overnight to macerate, and in the morning, strain the cooled liquid, reserving the fluid carefully and sending the exhausted herbs to your compost bin so that they may enrich the soil once again – a lovely example of transformation and the cycle of life. 

Now reheat the fluid, and when warm, keep adding sugar until it will no longer dissolve to form a super saturated solution.  To this I usually add the juice of several freshly squeezed lemon, which add to the vitamin C content, and also to cut the sweetness of the sugar. 

Bottle and keep in the fridge. To enjoy your brew, add a hearty dollop of your Elderberry Rob to a cup of hot water and drink as a hot toddy every evening.  It is delicious, tastes a bit like spiced port, and is very good for you. 

Now celebrate the cunning wo/man that you are, for you have transformed one of the wild gifts of nature into a powerful medicine, without the use of chemicals or expensive ingredients, and nothing is more magical than that.

PS: Always, always ask Helder Moer if you may pick before taking, and never take too much.  It is an important lore of the hedgerow. 


Jo has been practising as a medical herbalist since 1999. It was through the growing and collecting of herbs that she developed her relationship with hedgerow plants. This love of nature led her also to follow the Druidic path, which deepened her relationship with the cycles of nature and the magic of the natural world.  She is the winner of the Local Legend 2016 spiritual writing competition. 

This article expands on sections of Jo’s book Spirit of the Hedgerow. Available for purchase through Cygnus Books.

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