Elder

Elder
Sambucus nigra

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Elder belongs to the genus Sambucus and is a member of the Elderberry family (Adoxaceae).

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a deciduous tree, growing to over 15m and flowering June to July.

Lifespan: may live around 60 years, and persists via suckers.

Characteristics

A small tree or shrub with a short trunk (bole) producing many erect, straight suckers. Bark is grey-brown, corky and deeply furrowed. Twigs and branches have soft pith at their core. Leaves are opposite and pinnate with five to seven leaflets (each 3–9cm long), oval and toothed, with a pungent scent.

Elders are hermaphrodite: they have ‘perfect’ flowers with both sexes represented in one flower. Flowers are grouped in a large flat-topped umbel with many branches (10–20cm across). Individual flowers are approximately 5mm, with five petals and five stamens, and creamy in colour with a heavy, sweet scent. Fruits are a black edible berry (6–8mm) and appear late August to September. Elder is insect pollinated.

Elder tree
Elder leaves

Distribution

Native and widespread in the UK and in much of Europe.

Commonly found on nutrient-enriched soils in woodlands, scrub, hedgerows and on wasteland. Often found near rabbit warrens or badger setts where the soil is enriched with droppings.

Many cultivated varieties exist with different coloured foliage and flowers. Plantations of elder are becoming popular to harvest flowers and fruit.

Human value

Elder wood is hard and yellow-white. Mature wood is used for whittling and carving small items. Smaller stems contain a soft pith which can be hollowed out to make craft items.

The flowers and berries contain a mildly poisonous alkaloid which is destroyed by cooking; however, allergic reactions may still occur. The leaves are also poisonous.

Once cooked, the fragrant flowers can be safely used to make wine, cordial or tea or fried to make fritters.

The berries are full of vitamin C and can be collected and made into preserves, wine and medicinal vitamin syrup. The berries can also be used to make natural dyes.

Elder fruit
Elder flower

Wildlife value

The flowers provide nectar for many pollinating insects and the heady scent of the flowers will attract wasps.

The berries are consumed by a wide range of creatures; birds such as blackbird, blackcap, garden warbler, whitethroat, bullfinch, chaffinch, song thrush, mistle thrush, redwing and starling all enjoy them and the seeds are dispersed in this way. Small mammals such as dormice and bank voles will eat both the berries and the flowers.

Many moth species feed on elder including the white spotted pug, the V-pug, swallowtail, the dot moth and the buff ermine.

Elder is associated with the fungi elder whitewash and the edible jelly ear fungus.

Management

A hardy light-loving, fast-growing species able to tolerate some shade. It grows well on most soil types provided they are moderate to richly fertile and moist to well drained.

Seeds ripen in September and must be carefully extracted from the berry flesh and then pre-treated before planting in early March. Seed can be frozen and stored longer term. Elder can also be easily grown from softwood or hardwood cuttings.

Elder is quite resistant to browsing rabbits. It may be susceptible to black fly and a sap-sucking mite known as glasshouse red spider mite (Tetranychus urticae and T. Cinnabarinus or a hybrid).

Elder berries

Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Photographs © Forestry Commission