The Elder tree Sambucus nigra

By the end of May and early June the countryside of northern England , in common with the rest of the country, is a wash with the creamy, frothy blooms of the common elder tree. Although it is often named as the elder tree it is more allied to a tall shrub than a tree. It is one of a very few species of tree that almost every part is useful in one way or another to man. It has been used in medicine and for culinary purposes. The leaves, the bark, flowers and fruits have all been utilised in one way or another for centuries. {see below}

The tree is steeped in folklore. It was once planted over the graves of murderers in the belief that the roots would draw the corruption from the ground.It was thought that the spirit of the elder could be seen screaming in the flames if elder was burned. Another belief was that if you cut elder down the spirit of the tree would follow the person home and bad luck would befall on the perpetrator. These beliefs were deep routed in the countryside and neatly trimmed hedges were often interrupted by a tall straggling elder tree left untouched. It is still possible to encounter such hedgerows today in various parts of the country.

Another saying that alludes to the elder is that the English summer only begins when the elder is fully in flower and ends when the berries are ripe. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the tree as Eldrun, Aeld meant fire. The hollowed out stems were used to b;low the bottom of fires to get them started, in much the same way as bellows were later employed.

Because the foliage was believed to repel flies the tree was planted by outside toilets and abattoirs. In Medieval times a lotion was made from infusing the leaves and was applied to the body as a fly repellent. It was said to keep the flies away, the problem was it tended to keep your friends away as well.

It is another tree said to ward off evil spirits. Crosses made from elder were placed over the door ways of houses, stables,and cow sheds.to keep occupants safe from evil entities. There are records from days gone by claim that farmers utilised elder foliage to drive mice away from granaries and moles from the their usual haunts.



Tree or shrub-The Elder.

It is commonly described as being somewhere between a shrub and a tree in habit and height. It can achieve the height of 10 meters but is usually much less as a rule. The outline of the tree in leaf is broadly columnar which often includes untidy growth and arching branches.

The shrubby habit of the tree often sees stems sprouting from the base. The wood of elder is often covered in moss and lichen and a fungi known commonly as "Jews ear" fungi, is often found growing on the wood of elder.

Below the fungus commonly referred to as the Jew's ear.



The foliage of elder is one of the first to break bud in early spring. Locally they may break as early as March. They are borne opposite to each other, stalked and composed of 5-7 oval or elliptical leaflets which have toothed margins. The foliage has a unique smell that many people dislike. The whole leaf is from 30 cm long

Below---Top the fresh young foliage of elder. Bottom---the wood of elder. The older branches are clad with moss a familiar characteristic.

photo- Dal

Flowers and fruit.

The flowers are of a creamy white colour, fragrant and grow in somewhat flat headed clusters composed of numerous individual flowers 6-10mm broad. There are 5 stamens with yellow anthers which greatly contribute to the creamy colour of the head. The flowers give way to fruits {botanists refer to them as drupes}. They are green at first but by the autumn they become the familiar dark purplish black  recognized by all country folk. They hang in dense clusters.

The twigs and branches of elder have in their center a white pithe which may easily be removed. The hollowed out branches were often made into pipes which were played in the same manner as the modern day recorder.

Below--the elder provides a plethora of useful blooms


Medicinal and culinary uses of elder.

 It is difficult to know  where to start with the virtues of this fine tree. I will start with the foliage for this is a good a place as any to begin. They were employed as a lotion and applied to sprains and bruises. They were formerly used in the preparation of an ointment known as green elder ointment, utilised as a domestic remedy for bruises, sprains and chilblains and for applying to wounds. Green leaves were warmed between two flat stones and applied as hot as possible to relieve nervous headaches.

The flowers-- these creamy white flowers may be eaten straight from the tree as I have done many times over the course of many years. The flowers , fresh and packed into a container such as an air tight jam jar and filled with water makes an excellent lotion for skin complexions.

They may also be dried and then infused with boiling water which is regarded as being excellent for healing , soothing and cooling. It can also be utilised to cure headaches by being applied to the temples.Elder vinegar also made from the flowers is an age old remedy for sore throats.

The fresh flowers gathered in their clusters with as much stalk as possible can be deep fried after being coated with a home made batter composed from flour and water. The frying process takes but a minute until they are golden brown and crisp. They taste delicious. The flowers make excellent cordials and wine much flavoured by country folk.

The flowers after first being dried can be infused and the resulting liquid can be applied to itching or sore eyes as an eye wash. They may also be added to bath water for dry skin conditions. two teaspoons of dried flowers infused in 250ml of boiling water  for ten minutes  . the resulting liquid can then be drank {hot}. two cups a day are recommended to induce sweating in cases of  feverish colds.

The flowers contain essential oil, flavonoides and tannins, among other components. In homeopathy  the flowers are used to treat hay fever and arthritis and are considered to be a mild laxative.

The flowers can also be utilised to make syrups and excellent cordials and refreshing country wines.

below---ripe berries of the elder.


Elder berries

The berries have long been employed to make a strong cordial known as elder berry "Rob". This was taken hot at bedtime and is an excellent beverage to ease tight chesty coughs, colds and flue symptoms. Both elder flower wine and elder berry wines and cordials can be purchased  from many retail outlets ready prepared to drink. I can recommend all the cordials and wine made from the fruit and the flowers.

It should be noted however, that eating the raw berries is not recommended because the tiny stalks can irritate the kidneys. They also have a somewhat bitter taste. The Romans used the juice from the berries to dye their hair. The berries are considered to be antiviral

The berries were used to make a kind of ketchup and elder chutney. Elder berry and apple jam. Elder berry syrup which was also given to people with colds. I have mentioned but a few of the culinary preparations that can be made from the fruits and flowers but the diversity of products is there to see.

The elder Sambucus nigra is like an old friend to country people and I seldom pass the tree without tasting the flowers and later collecting the fruits for home use. In our region it is difficult to take a walk in the countryside without happening upon this most useful of our trees.



Any one thinking of using elder for culinary or medicinal purposes should first read the page WILD HERB ADVISE.

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