Common Name: Elder
Scientific Name: Sambucus nigra
Alternative Names: Bore-tree, Bour-tree, Borral, Bull-tree, Devil’s Wood, Dog-tree, Eller, God’s Stinking-tree, Judas Tree, Scaw, Tea-tree, Trammon.
Range: Throughout British Isles
Habitat: Hedgerows,woodlands, wasteplaces. Common around rabbit warrens and badger sets.
Key Identification Features: Deciduous shrub or small tree up to 10m tall. Bark is corky and deeply furrowed often covered with moss. Leaves are pinnate with usually 5 elliptical, toothed leaflets up to 9cm long, with an unpleasant smell when crushed. Flowers May to July, the small creamy flowers grow in many branched umbel like clusters up to 20cm across with a strong distinctive smell. Produces a round, black berry about 7-8mm across that hang down in drooping clusters with the stems of the drupe often turning purple.
Confusion Species: Ash Fraxinus excelsior and Rowan Sorbus aucuparia both have pinnate leaves but with more than 5 leaflets, also their bark isn’t corky like elder. Elder seedlings could be mistaken for Ground-elder Aegopodium podagraria, but the leaves of this have a pleasant, carrot like smell when crushed and tend to be tri-folate. Dogwood Cornus sanguinea, Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica, Alder Buckthorn Frangula alnus, and Wild Private Ligustrum vulgare all produce small black berries which are toxic and could potentially be mistaken for Elder berries. Elder is the only one with pinnate leaves and with the berries that droop.
Edible Uses: The flowers collected on a dry, sunny day can be used to make cordials, syrups, teas and for flavouring deserts. The can also be used to make Elderflower champagne using the natural yeast that grows on the flowers. The berries need to be cooked but can be used to make jams, syrups, cordials, flavour vinegar, pontack sauce and for wine making. The Wood Ear or Jelly Ear Fungus Auricularia auricula that frequently grows on dead Elder is edible.
Medicinal Uses: Contains sambunigrine, anthocyanine, and rutin. The leaves can be used externally to treat bruises and sprains. The flowers encourage sweating and help to break the fever in cold and influenza. They are also good for hayfever and as a face wash. The berries are full of vitamin C and combine well with the flowers for treating colds and ‘flu.
Other Uses: The leaves have been used as an insect repellent. The wood has a pithy center which can easily be hollowed out allowing it to be used to make straws, tubes for blowing air into the embers, whistles and other musical instruments, containers etc. The pithy center and it’s tendency to put up thin straight shoots make it one of the best native woods for the drill in the hand drill method of friction fire lighting, select long straight shoots about 10-14mm thick and they should be cut green and then seasoned. The pith its self can be used for fishing floats.
Addison, Josephine & Hillhouse, Cherry. “Treasury of Tree Lore” (Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1999)
Bruton-Seal, Julie & Seal, Matthew. “Hedgerow Medicine” (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008)
Launert, Edmund. “The Country Life Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants of Britain and Northern Europe” (Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1981)
Maybe, Richard. “Food for Free” (Harper Collins, 2001)
Rose, Francis. “The Wild Flower Key” (Frederick Warne, 1981)