Elder Tree Symbolism and Meanings

 9 min read

Elder tree symbolism has a lot of meanings these include forgiveness, regeneration, stability, protection, healing, prosperity, exorcisms and sleep just a few of them.

Elder trees are associated with magic and mystery, and the meanings of their symbols are as varied as their uses. You can hang branches and twigs over doors and windows to ward off evil and negative energies; carry the berries for the same purpose. Some say that Judas of the Bible hung himself on his tree, although that is not a known fact.

Elder trees are often found in cemeteries and other places where the dead are buried and has been associated with death and rebirth. In many cultures, the elder tree is thought to be a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

The elder tree symbolism has been interpreted in different ways over the centuries. Today, it continues to be a source of fascination and intrigue for many people around the world.

Whether you believe in its magical properties or not, the symbolism of the elder tree is rich with meaning and significance.

Symbolism:Healing and abundance, stability, regeneration, protection, rebirth
Divine Association:The “White Goddess”
Astrological Association:Moon
Superstitions:During the Middle Ages in Europe, there was a superstitious belief that elder trees smelled bad because Judas Iscariot had hanged himself from one. However, in Baden, southern Germany, it was said that Mary dried the infant Jesus’ soiled garments on an elder tree and that’s why they smell unpleasant.

About Elder Trees

Elder Tree Flower
Elder Tree Flower

Sambucus is a genus of small trees, shrubs, and perennial herbs. There are about 20 species in total, spread throughout many temperate and subtropical zones.

The common elder (S. nigra) is a large shrub or small tree found in Eurasia and northern Africa, which is characterized by its rugged, fissured bark. The leaves of the plant are opposite each other with five- to seven-toothed leaflets that are elliptic in shape; each leaflet can be up to 5 inches long (12.7cm).

In June, the flattened heads of fragrant flowers bloom; these flowers can be white or cream colored, and appear in clusters that measure about 8 inches across (20cm).

During the summer months, these flower clusters will develop into heavy bunches of glossy black fruits (berry-like drupes), which ripen on bright red stalks.

Elder thrives in waste dumps of organic matter and thus has been an accompaniment to human settlements from early history.

Practical Uses

The elder, a plant found in hedgerows and gardens across western Europe, has been used medicinally for millennia.

The young twigs have a spongy center of pith that can be hollowed out and used to make pipes, pea-shooters and other objects.

However, the hardwood of mature elder growth is not used commercially even though it is surprisingly strong.

Natural Healing

The elder tree has many purposes in medicine – both traditional and modern. The inner bark was (and still is) used as a strong laxative and emetic, while the leaves were applied to bruises, sprains, and headaches.

Today, however, it is primarily the blossoms and berries that are utilized in medicine. For example, making tea from the blossoms helps with sinus inflammation as well as hay fever allergies.

If you are trying to get over a cold, yarrow blossoms can help because they improve the function of your mucous membranes, make you sweat more (which lowers your temperature), and strengthens your immune system.

The berries have potent anti-viral effects and stimulate the immune system, and are best taken as a hot decoction (optionally with honey and ginger).

The tree essence can help one feel more stable and forgiving. It is especially useful during periods of change, or for children who tend to be fretful.

Folklore, Myth and Symbol of Elder Trees

Elder Tree Branches
Elder Tree Branches

Though not particularly tall, the elder trees have managed to accumulate a vast amount of traditions and folklore throughout their lives.

Some might say that the size of its body regarding these matters is second to none in all of Europe when compared to other trees.

The White Goddess is traditionally personified as the Elder Mother in Scandinavia and the old German Frau Holle, which are late expressions of this archaic deity. She is a benevolent goddess of light, life, and wisdom.

In some regions (Bavaria, for example), she was revered under the name Perchtha or Bertha– both names deriving from Indo-European bher(e)g meaning “shining white.”

The goddess blessed one specific tree with an overwhelming amount of healing power, and people have taken advantage of this since the early days. The elder was also given the spirit of guardianship by the goddess, making it responsible for protecting households and farmlands.

Good “house spirits” were said to reside in elder bushes in many countries, including Russia, the Baltic States, Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles. These offers of water, milk or beer continued until at least the 19th century.

“Only those who are desperate would take wood from an elder tree,” was a saying in northern Germany about death and the human body decomposing in the earth. Even at the turn of the 20th century, people showed respect by saying “hats off to the elder!” when they passed one by.

A Russian tradition has preserved the powerful and archaic association of elders with healing. Whenever a village was threatened by a dangerous epidemic, the local women would use a plough to draw a furrow around the settlement, to act as a barrier against malevolent forces.

This course of action was accompanied by an ancient ceremonial song which invoked the mythical image of the cauldron of rebirth that contained “every life under the sky”.

The cauldron was surrounded by old elders, trade for those who have forgotten or never knew: mythological ancestors of all modern-day elders on Earth.

The old elders sing –
They sing of life, they sing of death,
They sing of the whole human race.
The old elders bestow
Long life on the whole world;
But to the other – bad death,
The old elders command
A long and far journey.
The old elders promise
Eternal life
To the whole of humankind.

Christianity’s ascent changed a lot of old traditions. In some cases, trees that were worshipped before the religion became popular were recast in a bad light once Christianity was established.

So, over time, people started to think of elder trees as being evil because they were associated with witches and devils. For example, in some regions, Lady Elder was said to kidnap children or cut up people.

Although superstitions were abundant, many customs from the olden days when people venerated their elders survived.

This contradictory mix of affirmative and negative traditions has perplexed anthropologists for years.

The Elder Tree in Celtic Mythology

In Celtic mythology, the elder tree is associated with the goddess Cailleach. Cailleach is a fearsome creature who takes the form of an old hag.

She is said to live in the mountains and to bring winter with her when she descends from her dwelling place.

The elder tree is also associated with the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. Fionn was a great warrior who possessed superhuman strength. He gained his strength by bathing in a pool beneath an elder tree.

The Elder Tree in Slavic Folklore

In Slavic folklore, the elder tree is thought to be inhabited by a spirit known as Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is a wicked witch who lives in a house that stands on chicken legs. She kidnaps children and eats them.

Baba Yaga is often portrayed as being helpful to those who are lost or who need assistance.

However, she can just as easily turn against those who cross her or who fail to show her proper respect. 

Elder Tree Symbolism and Meanings

Elder Tree Fruit
Elder Tree Fruit

Fairy Communication

According to old folklore, if you stand under an elder tree during Beltane, Midsummer, or Samhain, you may be able to see fairies and/or the Elf King.

Some people believe this is because elders are residents of fairyland–they have a very similar vibe and magical signature as fairies.

Feminine Power

The elder is not embarrassed to show qualities which have been seen as too feminine and therefore rejected by our patriarchal culture. These are the very things that make her powerful.

At this crucial point in history, we must listen to the elder’s advice about restoring our respect for the feminine principle. By doing so, we can heal ourselves and save the world from destruction.

Graceful Shifts and Transitions

Elders have always been thought of as a way to travel from the physical world to the spiritual realm.

Because of this, they are often included in funerals and landscaping for cemeteries. It is also believed that elders are gateways to other worlds where spirits and fairies live.


Elder twig crowns worn at Beltane are said to help with clairvoyance. The vibration of the berries, as well as their deep blue/purple pigment, match up with the energy of the third eye chakra (the intuition-related center that resides in between and slightly above the eyebrows).

Also, because white is generally associated with both moons and divine connection—both extremely linked to intuition—the blossoms on elderberries correspond nicely too.


The elder tree is often associated with magic, and has thus been nicknamed the “witch tree.” It was believed that witches could easily transform into elders, and vice versa.

This connection is likely because the elder tree is aligned closely with the magical Germanic deity Hulda (also known as Mother Holle). Devotees would often dance ritualistically in circles around her trunk.


Many diverse cultural groups have made elder sticks into flutes, including Native Americans, Celts, and rural Californians.

These flutes can be used as magical tools; when played with clear intention, the music that comes out of them can bring about energetic shifts.


Be careful when handling the elder tree, as it can be both a powerful ally and a dangerous enemy.

According to Charlotte Sophia Burne’s The Handbook of Folklore, it is considered very wise to request permission from the Elder Mother (a spirit who watches over all elders) before taking wood or cutting down an elder tree.

Elder is often a key ingredient in protective amulets. The power that oversees the safety of elders—which is traditionally represented by a spirit, such as Mother Holle or the Elder Mother—can be called on to ferociously guard and shield people and animals.


The elder tree has a long and rich history of symbolism and meaning in many different cultures around the world. In some traditions, the tree is considered to be sacred; in others, it is believed to have magical properties.

The elder tree has also been associated with death and rebirth.

Whether you view the elder tree as a symbol of wisdom or as a harbinger of evil, there is no denying that it is one of the most fascinating trees in existence.