Archive for the ‘Elder’ Category

Recently I read these words from the famous and well respected nature writer Richard Mabey on the subject of the Elder (Sambucus nigra). “It is hard to understand how this mangey, short-lived, opportunistic and foul smelling shrub was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of plants.” Now, I like Mabey and own several of his books but reading this made me seriously re-evaluate my position! She may not be a classic beauty, but look closely and you will see so many aspects of the Elder Mother to love and cherish. Her presence in the hedgerow is such a blessing. She shelters and protects not only her human children, but is also beloved of wildlife and has a key role to play in plant ecosystems as well. She is truly a mother to us all and should be treated with respect, if not veneration, by everyone whose life has been touched by her generosity.

The Elder bathed in late summer sun

Along with other white blossomed trees such as Hawthorn and Rowan, the Elder belongs to the realm of the faeries and the Goddess. I loved discovering this, as all three have been particular favourites of mine for many years.  The Elder represents the old crone aspect of the goddess, as her name suggests, that part of us which is wise, experienced, strong and connected to the world of the unconscious. Part of these associations come from Celtic mythology in which Elder governed the thirteenth and final month of the year. Her place was to guard the gates between life and death, endings and beginnings, the knowledge of the day and the mysteries of the night. Her mythology has always related to those in-between times such as Samhain (Halloween) and Midsummers Eve when you would see the Faery King ride by with his retinue, should you choose to take shelter beneath an Elder tree. Elderberries gathered at Samhain are seen as especially potent medicinally, though there are seldom any left by late October.

Elder Hedgerow

Often, when I come across Elder out walking I have a sense that I’ve strayed into the path of someone venerable and wise and feel I should offer a little curtsey or bow of respect, or at least an acknowledgement in words or in thought. She seems to cooly observe the world, somewhat detached from its folly yet uncompromising in her efforts to help. Just like any loving and aged Grandmother, or anyone connected with the realms of faery, she also has a bit of a sense of humour! There’s often a challenge involved in picking Elder, she’s usually surrounded by a guard of nettles or a hidden ditch for the unwary to stumble down.

Elder Tree

In his highly recommended book The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner describes Elder as a keystone plant, one that helps to establish a community of plants by increasing the health of an ecosystem and making it more hospitable. He says;

“Keystone species, once established, call to them not only soil bacteria and mycelia but the plants they have formed close interdependencies with over millennia. As the plants arrive, the keystone’s chemistries literally inform and shape their community structure and behaviours. The capacity of keystone species to ‘teach’ their plant communities how to act was widely recognised in indigenous and folk taxonomies. Elder trees for example are keystone species in many ecosystems. Among many indigenous and folk peoples it is said that the Elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused.”

This confirms for me one of the key aspects of my understanding of the Elder, that of protection. Not only does she protect and shelter young and newly establishing species of plants but, through the berries she produces in abundance each year, she protects our immune systems during the harshest months of winter. These berries are also rich in antioxidants which are known to protect our cardiovascular system, skin and brain among other things. In folklore, The Elder was thought to protect from witchcraft and negative energies and was traditionally planted at the back of the house, whilst Rowan was planted at the front.

The Elder Protects

For me the Elder speaks of the wisdom of change, the subtle understandings of life and death and the knowledge teamed with deep compassion that only those of great age can possess. We have much to learn from this ‘mangey’ and ‘opportunistic’ old crone. This spirit of the hedgerow who doesn’t quite belong to this world, but fulfils so many duties within it.

Who cares what Mabey thinks. We love you Elder Mother.

Elder Sky

Pop back tomorrow when I’ll be posting a variety of the elderberry recipes I’ve made over the last fortnight.

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The Elder tree has been held as sacred in various folkloric traditions, as has the Elder Mother who presides over it. Any lady whose age numbers in the thousands has learnt a thing or two about natural beauty and, luckily for us, the Elder Mother shares some of her secrets in the creamy white elderflowers that adorn her trees in May and June. Elderflowers have long been used in skincare recipes for their softening, anti-inflammatory and beautifying properties and infusions have been used to even the skin tone, ease sunburn and prevent wrinkles.

I love elderflower infused oils for use in face and body care recipes so this year I decided to experiment with a few different base oils to see how they captured the fragrance and nourishing properties of the elderflowers. With the resulting products I made a face oil, a day cream and a body butter, the recipes for which are included here.

Along with my usual sweet almond oil infusion, I chose to try safflower oil and macadamia oil as well as a couple of solid oils- coconut and mango butter. Safflower oil is popular in cosmetics because it is high in essential fatty acids. Like sweet almond, it is a light oil with little odour so I thought it would work well for capturing the scent of the elderflowers. Macadamia is a rich, fatty oil that it particularly beneficial for dry or mature skins and has a deep nutty aroma. Coconut oil has a lovely light consistency which is perfect for cream making though its strong smell can detract from the elderflowers, so I also tried the mango butter which has a similar, though slightly creamier consistency, with hardly any smell. Coconut oil is considered cooling and elderflowers have been recommended for sunburn so I thought this would make a nice aftersun if blended with some aloe vera and lavender water.

It’s important to use only organic, cold pressed oils to retain all the therapeutic benefits and ensure there are no traces of harmful chemicals in your products and, of course, make sure you only harvest elderflowers from areas you’re sure haven’t been sprayed.

Fresh Elderflowers give up their scent and beautifying properties quite quickly and will go off if left to infuse too long. I chose to sun infuse my oils for about 10 hours on a bright windowsill which was plenty of time for them to absorb all the goodness without getting that ‘cat’s pee’ smell that can accompany over done elderflowers! With the coconut and mango butters I melted them in a bain marie before pouring them over the elderflowers and allowing to infuse for a day before re-warming and straining. You can use the heat method but the oils can quickly degrade at high temperatures so I prefer to sun infuse where appropriate. For a detailed explanation of how to infuse an oil see my previous post here.

Elderflower Oils

As elderflowers have very fine pollen I chose to strain the liquid oils through a coffee filter to ensure as much of the plant material as possible was removed and prolong the life of the finished oil. The melted butters went quite happily through a muslin cloth however. I was really happy with all the different infusions, especially the mango butter and safflower which, I thought, retained the best smell. The macadamia oil has a really decadent feel but would be too heavy to use alone so I decided to mix equal parts of the three liquid infused oils to make a delicious face oil. By mixing all three you get the benefits of them all with a really nice consistency. Don’t feel you have to use the same oils as me, feel free to use any that you fancy and you can also just use one rather than a combination for ease and practicality.

Elderflower Face Oil:
This recipe makes three 30ml bottles
30ml elderflower infused in safflower
30ml elderflower infused in sweet almond
30ml elderflower infused in macadamia
3ml vitamin E Oil

I use just 3 or 4 drops of this oil massaged into damp skin at night and it feels so soft in the morning.

I also made a face cream for use in the day.

Elderflower and Rose Moisturiser:
50 ml rosewater
25ml aloe vera gel
1/2 tbsp vegetable glycerine
10g beeswax
50ml elderflower infused oil (I did 20 safflower, 20 almond and 10 macadamia)
20ml elderflower infused mango butter (or coconut butter. Use plain if you have none infused)
5ml Vitamin E
5 drops Vitamin A
10 drops Rose Otto essential oil

This makes a really lovely, rich cream so a little goes a long way. Melt the beeswax in a bain marie and add the mango butter and oil when it’s already soft.

In a separate container, mix the aloe vera, rosewater and vegetable glycerine.

Take the oils off the heat and allow to cool slightly before adding the vitamins A and E.

I use a small hand blender to mix them as I’m not making a large enough quantity to use my big blender. You could also use an electric or hand whisk. Begin to blend/ whisk the oil mixture and slowly add in the waters, a drizzle at a time. Continue to blend until you have a nice smooth, even, creamy consistency. Spoon into a jar or jars and stir in the essential oils. Allow to cool completely before putting in the fridge as this will help prevent it separating.

This recipe doesn’t contain a preservative but it you want it to last longer than a month or so you will need to add one.

I have a much more detailed description of cream making here.

Also a description of ingredients including preservatives here.

Elderflower Softening Cream

I’m currently making a toner to go with this by infusing elderflowers in witch hazel distillate. For normal or combination skin mix 25ml of the resulting liquid with 75ml of rosewater and place in a spray bottle to spritz on after cleansing or to refresh the skin throughout the day. For dry skin, drop the witch hazel to 10ml and up the rosewater to 90ml and for oily skin you can increase the witch hazel to 40ml and use 60ml of lavender water instead of rose.

Finally I made a really simple body butter with the following ingredients;
60 ml elderflower infused in sweet almond
30ml elderflower infused mango butter
30ml shea butter
Melt all the ingredients together in a bain marie/ double boiler, mix well and pour into a 120ml jar. Allow to set in the fridge before using liberally.

Do patch tests first to ensure you aren’t sensitive to any of the ingredients in these recipes.

And last but not least, don’t forget to thank the Elder Mother! 😉

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